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

How To Be An Authentic Writer Without Feeling Exposed

the truth doesn’t have to hurt

Photo by W A T A R I on Unsplash

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

They say write what you know.

Be authentic and write from the heart. But what if that’s too painful? What if, like many writers, you’re afraid to be exposed by your words?

It happened to me. I wrote a story that I was afraid to publish.

Not because it was risqué or difficult. It was honest and true. And that was the problem. It was too honest, too raw, and reading it over felt like dissecting a part of my heart and leaving it open for anyone to see.

As we all do, I drew on experience as well as imagination to create my world. Something sneaked past my filters and on to the page. I wrote it for a competition, but missed the deadline while I agonised over whether to let it go.

How could I be prepared to send this off to be judged by strangers, but hesitate to post it on my own media?

The difference was anonymity.

The story was too close to uncomfortable truths. I usually bury those truths within the lie of fiction, but here they were all too visible to me.

Many writers know this feeling. What if someone who knows me reads it?

I wanted my stories to be strong. But I didn’t want to write them with my own blood.

Was I right to hesitate?

All Eyes On You

Have you ever heard the expression: Walk a mile in my shoes, and then judge me? And write your own books.
Ann Rule

You know how it feels when you’re anxious or shy. You feel as if everyone is looking at you and worse, judging you harshly. But that’s not true. Everyone is as consumed by thoughts about themselves as you are.

This is known as the spotlight effect. You hide because of the erroneous belief that everyone is watching. They’re not.

Remember that as the author you know everything about your story. You know where you found events and people that appear in it. Nothing is disguised. But the reader doesn’t have that inside knowledge. As long as you change details, especially about real people, the reader’s unlikely to draw the conclusions you fear.

You have to trust your story, and your judgement, and move forward despite anxiety.

Feel The Fear

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

One day, heart pounding and mouth dry, I attached the story to a competition entry and pressed send. I felt sick.

Months later, heart pounding and mouth dry, I read that prize-winning story to an audience of writers. They told me how they had been drawn in by the emotions portrayed.

beach_publicdomainpictures
 

The dilemma we face as artists is the need to be authentic, to bleed onto the page, while retaining our emotional integrity. Deep connection with a story is visceral recognition, a punch in the gut that speaks more eloquently than any words could.

And it is the drop of your blood, the moment of vulnerability, that makes the connection true.

Channel real emotion into honest writing.

If you’re writing memoir, events can be portrayed as they happened, letting the reader experience them with you.

If you’re writing fiction, you need to get emotion on the page without revealing your source material. Change names and places. Combine elements of real people into a new character. Writers have the power to immortalise or demonise friends and enemies — but a libel suit or worse, an angry relative is best avoided.

When you write betrayal, for example, think back to when someone let you down. Allow yourself to experience it again and jot down the first words that occur to you. The first words are the true ones, before your brain has time to filter and censor.

How would your character express those feelings? The circumstances are different, but the emotion is familiar.

You don’t know how it feels to hide during an alien invasion. Or maybe you have been that person, frightened of being discovered or left behind. In any case you do know something similar; fear, despair, anger, hope. That’s what you write.

Only Connect

It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.
Paul Gallico

I don’t suggest you should spill every secret on the page. But some experiences have lessons worth sharing. In sharing experiences and lessons learned, we connect. We give people the chance to recognise themselves on the page, and feel less alone.

Show us a glimpse of your soul, show us what it is to be human.

When you hesitate because it feels too personal, write it.
When you pause because it’s still a little raw, write it.
When your heart pounds at the sight of those true words, write it.

Someone needs to read your words and recognise themselves within them.


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blog, creativity, writing, writing process

How To Bounce Back When Your Writing is Rejected (Even Though You’re Terrified of Another No)

Photo by photo-nic.co.uk nic on Unsplash

A boo is a lot louder than a cheer.
Lance Armstrong

Rejection is tough.

No matter what people say about collecting 100 rejections or actively seeking out rejection in order to grow, rejection never feels good no matter how you try to spin it.

If you’re a creative, you’ll face a lot of rejection. Your pitch, query, design or article will be politely turned down, or worse, ignored altogether. You’re hardwired to remember the negative more than the positive. But you go on because nobody has a perfect hit rate, right?

You try again, and again.

One day, another rejection is the final straw. You’ve been slaving away to make your work the best it can be, and you just can’t take any more. You stop working.

Each no makes you feel like an egg dropped on the floor. And this time, you shatter so badly that you can’t put yourself back together again. You know mindless distractions don’t help, but you numb the feelings with food or alcohol or endless scrolling anyway.

What are you going to do now?

Never Too Big To Fail

The reality is: sometimes you lose. And you’re never too good to lose. You’re never too big to lose. You’re never too smart to lose. It happens.
Beyoncé Knowles

Nobody succeeds all the time. When we see the hits, it’s easy to forget all the misses. And we never see all the pieces that didn’t make it into the public eye.

You are not your work.

You’ve put time and effort and maybe a part of yourself into your work, but it isn’t you. A rejection of your work doesn’t pass judgement on you as a person or your overall skill as a creative.

Separate your work from your self-esteem and reframe the loss. Maybe the piece wasn’t a good fit, or it was the fifth similar piece that month, or it was overlooked. None of that has anything to do with you. Remember opinion is subjective and what’s wrong for one person is just right for another.

Have a mourning period if you need it and then move on to action.

Take Two

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
Henry Ford

The quality of the piece is something that is entirely within your control. Feedback on rejected work is uncommon but take it if offered. It’s time to review and rework your piece.

Could it be better? The answer is almost always yes. Look at it with new eyes, or pretend it belongs to someone else. When in doubt, cut the beginning. It might work better without it, or with a new opening.

Learn to self-edit ruthlessly and polish your work to show its best features. When you believe it can’t be improved further, you’re ready for the next step.

A New Home

Have you had a failure or rejection? You could get bitter. That’s one way to deal with it. Or…you could just get BETTER. What do you think?
Destiny Booze

Take your shiny piece and resubmit elsewhere. If you want to be published in a journal, you have to contend with a very low acceptance rate.

Let’s say your journal of choice publishes four pieces by new writers four times a year. Only sixteen of the hundreds or perhaps thousands of pieces they receive will make it. The same goes for contests.

The odds are against you so you’ll have to play more games to increase your chance of winning. A tiny proportion of players become winners, but that doesn’t mean that the rest have no merit.

Alternatively, bypass the gatekeepers completely. You have the freedom to publish whatever you choose on sites such as MediumWattpad, or your own blog.

Believe in your work and search for a better home.

Climbing From The Wreckage

It’s you vs. you.

Dwayne Johnson

So you sent your story out to do battle elsewhere, or maybe you concluded it wasn’t in fact good enough. Your next step is to regroup and renew.

Look around for the next opportunity — a contest or publication. Use prompts. Or indulge and write something just for yourself. Make something new and make it great. Setting a deadline forces completion.

A portfolio of completed pieces boosts your confidence and drives improvement in your skills. No words are wasted whether they are made public or not.

Do you keep an ideas file? If not, start one. Capture them all in one place, whether digital like Evernote or the notes function on your phone, or an old-school notebook. When you don’t know what to write, pick an idea and write without judgement.

Don’t be derailed by perfectionism. Your inner editor will whisper, “That last piece bombed, what makes you think this will do any better?” Ignore it. Your job is simply to write.

Spew out a messy first draft and keep going till you reach the end. You can’t edit an empty page.

The first draft of anything is shit.
Ernest Hemingway

You have more stories to tell, so get writing.

Rise Up

Your ability to adapt to failure, and navigate your way out of it, absolutely 100 percent makes you who you are.
Viola Davis

What’s the real meaning of rejection?

It means you succeeded in facing the worldYou took a chance on your own abilities and risked the pain of failure. Rejection is a lesson. It asks, “How much do you want this success, and what price are you prepared to pay?”

There’s no shame in giving up a dream, as long as you don’t give up on dreaming altogether. There’s no shame in failure, as long as you use it to fuel your work.

Every five or ten rejections, reward yourself for effort. It’s painful and you deserve to ease that pain, even if you accept it’s necessary for your growth. We all know the Beatles, Ernest Hemingway, and JK Rowling faced rejection before they found success. But it’s still hard when it happens to you.

Nobody bats a thousand. But winners keep swinging until they hit that home run, and then they keep going. Athletes who didn’t make the winners’ podium carry on eating clean and logging training hours so they can beat their personal best and win next time.

To make rejection work for you,

  • Reframe the loss
  • Review and rework it
  • Resubmit elsewhere
  • Regroup and renew your efforts
  • Reward your bravery

Rejection is unavoidable, but you can work through it. Success is waiting, so keep writing.

A rejection is nothing more than a necessary step in the pursuit of success.
Bo Bennett


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blog, creativity, writing

How To Be Interesting

goodbye to boring

Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash

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

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

No matter how much you deny it…

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

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

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

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

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

Cast the Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be interesting, you really need just one thing.

One Way Leads To Many Roads

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

Curiosity drives interesting people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But asking the right question is only the first step.

One Closed and Two Open

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

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

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

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

Not All That Glitters is Instant Gold

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Marnix Hogendoorn on Unsplash

Bored Isn’t Interesting

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

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

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

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

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

Passion is Contagious

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Your Court

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

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

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

Be interesting. The world needs you.

blog, creativity, poetry, productivity

Making my way

StockSnap via pixabay

It’s getting cooler now, autumn truly setting in as what’s left of summer fades away. Rain trickles down the windows. I stare out at the grey sky, and I don’t know what I’m doing or why.

I begin work.

Sometimes nothingness and oblivion are far more appealing than they should be. Have I had a good life, someone asks. I’ve been good. I’ve done good. Followed the rules. Not made a fuss.

I don’t know if that is a good life. If it is good for me.

I keep working.

It seems futile, shouting into the void, scratching symbols on the sand for the tide to wash it away. Hurricanes blow away human constructions, suck the very ocean from the earth. People talk feverishly of end times, booking places in the lifeboat of faith. They know they will be saved. All seems futile, all comes to an end, why not here?

I have not come to an end. I wake, and it is another day, and I go on working.

There are lean times, and times of plenty. There are droughts, and oases of green. There are things made of grey, and nothings made of black. There are places where all these co-exist, a Schrödinger dimension of ideas. My head is one of these places.

In the midst of death and endings, my fingers sprout new lives and beginnings that never were. I build word bricks into sentence walls and so construct whole cities of fanciful notions, airy and insubstantial and leaden. If I don’t spit them out they weigh me down and I drown in a sea of tears.

I must work.

Fly my pretties, out into an uncertain world of indifference and pain. Let me birth you one by one, sit gasping and bleeding in the road, then catch my breath and move on, never looking back. Another cuckoo grows within. I sleep, and life comes to me again with dawn. I rise, weary.

The work compels me.

If I have material or if I have not, it is the same. It is only the work, the creation, the what if spur in my flanks, that gives meaning to the day. I may turn my back, but it is always there.

And so I’m doing the work.


 

blog, creativity, productivity, writing process

Learn to Love Frustration

beating the block isn’t what you think

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

 

Do you sometimes feel like you’re banging your head against a wall?

Your puppy fetches the ball, but won’t drop it. Your golf handicap is stuck at 22 despite taking lessons from the club pro. You can’t get past 25K words in your novel.

Or maybe the situations are all internal. Despite resolving to work smarter, you can’t stop playing that online game. You resolved to write 500 words daily but you wrote barely 500 in the last two weeks.

All these situations share one thing; you’re not getting what you want. Instead, you have effort without progress. You’re tempted to shout in anger or walk away in disgust.

It’s just not working. And you don’t know what to do next.

So Close

Expectation is the mother of all frustration.
Antonio Banderas

You might assume that as you become more skilled or experienced, frustration lessens. Sadly, that’s not true.

The novice knows she lacks skill. She has everything to gain and getting it wrong is a necessary part of the process. She endures the frustration of failure because there is no other way to improve.

Now consider the skilled practitioner who wants to improve. She’s gone through the early stages of learning and she has a decent level of skill. Now she wants to step up her game. She knows what she wants to achieve and she’s confident, having done something like it before.

If she enters a new arena where the players are more advanced, she must return to the novice position. This isn’t easy, because it entails putting aside her hard-earned pride in her skills. The frustration in failing again at what ought to be easy is huge.

Some years ago I took a postgraduate course on teaching adults. A twelve-month course was condensed into eight. The students were all respected professionals with letters after their names. Enthusiasm varied but the course was mandatory and how hard could it be?

We struggled. Every one of us.

The academic writing style was alien to me and my tutor’s comments reflected that. We were used to working hard for top scores; what do you mean the marking range is 50–60 marks?

We couldn’t accept that a mark of 54% was deemed a reasonable pass, that 58% would be excellent, that 60% was perfect and impossible to achieve. The workload was tough, on top of demanding full-time work and managing both practice and teenage family.

One woman, traumatised by failing an assignment for the first time in her life, never returned for the second module. I was used to being a high achiever, and suddenly I was in unfamiliar territory with a hard deadline to meet.

I had to find another way, fast.

Beginner’s Mind is Only the Start

Needing to have things perfect is the surest way to immobilize yourself with frustration.
Wayne Dyer

Beginner’s mind is that state in which the student is like an empty cup, waiting to be filled. In it we accept that we don’t know; we keep an open mind.

In reality, we can’t jettison everything we think we know so easily. For expert professionals, a great deal of self-worth and ego is tied up in knowledge and competence, the things for which experts are respected and rewarded.

A pragmatic compromise is to separate things we know from things we don’t yet know. It’s tempting to let real skills in one area bleed into an assumption of skill in another. Hence pop stars try to act and actors try to sing, with varying results.

For me and my postgraduate student peers, it meant returning to a state we’d left far behind us; a state of ignorance.

I had to let go of my past behaviours and assumptions. The minimum needed to pass was an aggregate score of 51%. That miserable number still required a ton of work.

We could argue about which referencing style was superior, or we could accept that the university required the Vancouver style and get to learning it.

I still had my skills in studying, revising, and time management. I still had expert status in my own field. Being a beginner again didn’t negate those things.

I only pushed through my frustration after a clear analysis of the work and resources needed, but without overvaluing my past experience.

There’s no shame in not knowing, as long as you’re prepared to learn.

A Different Playing Field

You have expectations about the effort needed and the results you can expect from that effort. You experience frustration because either:

  1. You’re putting in an effort but not achieving the goal.
  2. Your actual effort is less than your perceived or promised effort.

1. Nice Try But No Cigar

You must figure out what is blocking your progress and then be ready to act, even if it goes against the grain. It’s okay to ask for help. High achievers have coaches and mentors on their teams.

Do you need to lean into practice? The very best practitioners in all disciplines practise over and over. They hit millions of balls, run thousands of miles, or write millions of words before the world sees them winning.

Moving up a level in your field rests on doing more. And then, when you’re sick of it, do it again.

Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.
Newt Gingrich

Improving in a new field means checking your ego at the door. Listen to the coach and follow instructions. You can’t win at baseball using a golf club or marathon running techniques.

2. The Lies You Tell

Are you guilty of complaining? You tell anyone who’ll listen that you just don’t have time to write, you’re too busy to work out, or you have special circumstances that stop you from doing what you said you would.

Before you can lie to someone, you first lie to yourself.

You already know what stands in your way. You prioritised it and did that instead. Hard work is hard and boring. You want an easy life — but here’s the thing.

You can have excuses, or you can have results.

You can have excuses, or you can have results. The choice is yours.

Other people have achieved what you want with fewer resources and greater challenges. So decide what you really want and commit to it fully.

Assume you’ll fall into bad habits again, then plan around your weak spots so you keep working.

Fill the fridge with healthy food options. Pack your gym bag at night and put it in front of the door so you can’t avoid it the next morning. Use distraction-free software to keep your focus on the words you’re producing.

Tell yourself the hard truth. You are the only one holding you back.

How Much Do You Want It?

Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe.
Sumner Redstone

Why suffer through frustration when it’s easier to give up?

Because the obstacle doesn’t block your path — it is the path.

The obstacle is there to teach you humility, to test your resolve and strengthen your muscles, to drive your growth.

And the prize will be all the sweeter after the struggles you endured. It’s time to stretch for the higher fruit.


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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, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

19 Ideas to Make 2019 Your Best Writing Year Ever

19 uncommon writing goals to move you forward

frank mckenna via unsplash

Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning.
Gloria Steinem

As December ends and we leave the holiday season behind, our thoughts naturally turn to the new year. Like the two headed Roman god Janus, patron of doorways and transitions, we look forward and back at the same time.

It can be a time of regret for missed opportunities, unwanted challenges faced, and unfulfilled dreams.

It’s also a time to look forward with hope, taking the lessons we’ve learned forward to do better in the new year. Here are 19 uncommon goals to improve your writing. Let’s do the WRITE thing in 2019.

Write
Read
Improve
Talk
Expand

Write More, Write Better

1. Write a manifesto

Companies write inspiring mission statements to express their aims in a few words. Write out your personal manifesto. What do you believe in when it comes to life and your creative work? What principles guide you? Condense the ideas into a single sentence that captures the essence of your vision. Use it in your bio on Medium, Twitter and your blog.

2. Set a monthly word count and track your output

What gets measured, gets done.

Daily word counts work well for some people but with busy lives sometimes a weekly or monthly target is better. This allows you flexibility to vary the count according to life events and the unexpected.

You might favour a fancy bullet journal, but a cheap desk diary works too if you like analogue records. If a spreadsheet works better for you, use that. The format doesn’t matter, as long as you complete it.

Set aside fifteen minutes each Sunday to record your word count and plan your week. If you’re falling behind, revise your goals. Schedule it in your diary and show up.

3. Finish that project — create a timeline

Unfinished projects derail you in three ways.

  • You waste time and energy feeling guilty and anxious.
  • You deprive yourself of the satisfaction of completion.
  • You deprive the world because it never sees your work.

You know that thing you started but never finished? Its time has come.

Whether it’s a novel or a blog post, pull up the document now. Figure out the minimum needed to complete it. Start writing. Keep going until it’s done. Don’t think, write.

Don’t stop, even if all you write is “blah blah blah and then they were abducted by aliens, The End.”

When you finish, breathe a sigh of relief and hit delete. You never have to look at it again. And you never have to let it drain your mental energy again, unless it is to edit and publish — if you want to.

4. Build or update your website

Everyone who hopes to send work into the world should have their own blog. It’s a place to build your portfolio, to connect with readers and clients, and to express yourself. Having all your work in one place is unwise, unless you own the platform.

If the platform vanishes, your work will vanish with it. By all means publish on Medium or elsewhere, but also have your own site where you can start to build an email list.

Make a free website this year with WordPress or Blogger.
If you have a blog already, refresh it with a new theme. Rewrite your About pages. Ensure you’re collecting emails for your subscriber list.

Read Something Interesting

It is well to read everything of something, and something of everything.
Joseph Brodsky

5. Read a craft book

There’s a number of classic books on the craft of writing. You probably have one unread on the shelf right now. Here’s a list to get you started.

Pick one craft book and read it. Make notes on the new things you learned. Commit to using at least two of them in your next month of writing. It’s not enough to read and understand, you must also apply and assess results.

6. Read one book in a less favoured genre

You know what you like, right? And you avoid what you don’t. But you can learn new skills from different genres. Those skills are transferable to any genre.

Mystery shows how to write foreshadowing and twists. Horror shows how to write suspense. Fantasy shows how to write worldbuilding. And romance shows how to write dialogue.

Pick a book in a genre you never usually choose. Then read like a writer. You might need to read through and then go back to dissect how the writer achieved their aims.

If you could improve in the areas where you are weakest, imagine how much better your writing would be.

7. Sign up for free books

Sign up to Prolific Works or Bookbub and download free new ebooks in a wide range of genres. Classic titles and a selection of other languages are available at Project Gutenberg.

You can experiment with something new, or see what the competition is like in your chosen niche. It might give you ideas.

If you like a book, leave a review. That’s the best way to support a fellow writer, apart from buying their books.

8. Choose new authors on Medium and elsewhere

We live in an age of algorithms and filtered results tailored to our preferences. You can end up in an echo chamber where everyone holds the same views and no dissenting voices appear. That’s not good for discourse or for empathising with other people.

Instead of clicking on the same few names in your Medium email, try searching the tags you’re interested in. Pick a new author and have a look at their posts. Leave an intelligent comment and vote when you like a piece. You might find a new favourite.

Improve Your Skills

source

9. Take a course

The knowledge you need is out there. Commit to completing a course this year. Paid options include Udemy and CreativeLive. The latter offers some free to view content.

Free content is available as a signup bonus for some blogs like Jericho Writers as well as formal paid courses.

If you learn better with feedback or with demonstration, taking a course might suit you more than reading a book. Take your professional development seriously.

10. Retreat from the world

Writing retreats vary from simple to luxurious, local to exotic, with price tags to match. The opportunity to focus on writing can jumpstart your project or your mindset.

If you can commit the time, you’re halfway there. A retreat could consist of eight dedicated hours on Saturday with the kids sent to a relative or friend and the phone switched off. Or it could be a Caribbean cruise with well-known writers and cocktails.

Award yourself some time to write.

11. Join a Twitter pitch event

Each year, a number of writers find their agent through Twitter. Events are organised regularly by genre, using hashtags for authors to describe their books. Agents read the pitches and request pages, and some authors get signed.

Condensing your book into a 140 or 280 character pitch requires discipline and economy. The same skills are needed for writing blurbs and synopses. If you can’t condense it, maybe your story isn’t ready for an agent. Find tips and advice on winning twitter pitch events here.

12. Make an ebook for download

Ebooks are often used as incentives to sign up for an email list, and it’s good to offer your new readers something valuable in return for their time.

Include your best blog posts, or new stories not published elsewhere. Having your own mini book is another signal that you take yourself seriously as an author.

Use free resources from Canva or LucidPress to make professional looking booklets with ease. Then link it to your sign-up form using a mail program like Mailchimp or Convertkit.

There’s an undeniable sense of achievement in saying “I made that.”

Talk and Connect

13. Leave a meaningful review or comment

Be the change you want to see in the world.
(
source)

You want people to read and engage with your words. Commit to doing this for another author at least once a week. Leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Reviews are hard to get and vital to a book’s success.

Write a comment that goes beyond ‘good job’ and shows how the words impacted you. Claps and reads and votes are marvellous, but a thoughtful comment is gold. And you can start a conversation that becomes a real relationship, without having to make small talk or even get dressed.

14. Join a group — genre or other

Writing is solitary and people in real life don’t get it. Join a group of people who do. Facebook has hundreds of groups organised by genre, gender, location, and philosophy of writing.

Look at 100 best websites for writers for more ideas. Google writing group+genre. Lurk around the group for a while and see what suits you.

Conversely, if you have more than ten group memberships it might be time to cull those you’re not active in and focus on fewer.

A real-life writing group is well worth considering, even if they have their drawbacks.

15. Attend a Conference

Writing conferences happen throughout the year and all over the world. Most offer workshops, sometimes with well-known authors, and the opportunity to meet agents and others in the publishing world. You can practice your pitch and chat with other writers. Self-publishing is also covered.

Cost will determine your choices here. Weekend events sometimes allow day visitors, which reduces costs of accommodation and catering.

16. Attend an author event

Attend a book signing or reading that’s local to you. Ask Google, or your local bookshop or library might have a calendar of events.

Have a sensible question for the author, but don’t monopolise the conversation or make it all about your book.

Like number 13, this is about good karma and being supportive, as well as learning by observation. Make good connections, because one day it could be your turn.

Image by Argus398

Expand Your Horizons

17. Enter competitions

This year enter at least three contests. Many writing contests are free. You can search for competitions all over the world, dedicated to every kind of writer and writing. Writer’s Digest and Writing Magazine publish annual and monthly calendars of upcoming contests.

More contests and events can be found at blogs by Free Writing Events and Erica Verrillo among others.

Entering a contest sets a deadline, which encourages you to finish your piece. You might have to write to a prompt or theme. And if you win, it will take your self-confidence to the next level as well as giving you bragging rights for your bio — and hopefully some cash too.

18. Milestone rewards for writing goals

Celebrate your successes and remind yourself how far you’ve come. Set some goals with a time limit, and write them out. You’re going to attach a reward to each milestone such as number of blog posts, finishing a project, hitting your monthly word count or whatever.

This reward will be something meaningful to you. Getting your 100th follower might mean more than hitting a word count, so let the rewards show that.

Big milestones deserve big celebrations. You got an agent? Finished your 120K epic saga? Wrote for 100 days without a break? Take a bow, choose a prize.

This is when your writing group gives another benefit — having people to celebrate with you. Don’t look for credit where you know it won’t be given, that’s just self-sabotage.
Be happy for yourself.

19. Publish a book

The joy of self-publishing is that it gives you total control. There is no gatekeeper. You can write and publish a book with your name on it this year — if you want.

Like many things in life, the most successful authors are not necessarily the most visible. There are independent authors making millions, others following a hybrid self and trad publishing path, and others just thrilled to hold their own book in their hands. It’s not all about money.

Collect your best blog posts and add 25% new material. Collect your short stories or poetry by theme. Polish up your novella.

If this seems like an impossible stretch target, remember everything that exists was once no more than a passing thought.

Think of yourself as a published author. Then act like a published author. Ignore the disparaging comment “self-pub isn’t real publishing.” It is real, and if you’re going to be the next Kindle millionaire you’d better get started.

 

Putting the 20 into 2019

Most of us have heard of the power of affirmations. And most of us don’t really believe that repeating positive phrases will change our reality.

But we’re mistaken.

Thinking things into being is what creatives do.

So I challenge you to take your wildest, most precious, most secret wish for your creative life. Write it down, for your eyes only, on real paper. Tell it like it’s already real; say I am… or I have…

Now choose a physical object to symbolise your wish.

It could be a talisman like a crystal or a lucky pen. Maybe you’ll roll up your wish on a tiny scrap of paper and hide it in a locket.

Hold your wish in your hand once a week. Say it out loud.

Dream first, because that’s where everything real begins. 

Then get working to make it come true.

When you do the things in the present that you can see, you are shaping the future that you are yet to see.
Idowu Koyenikan

Good luck with your writing goals in the coming year.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

How to Find the Inspiration To Go From Good To Great

the magic 1%

Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

Do you really need the elusive 1% of inspiration, or is 99% perspiration enough to get the job done?

Inspiration is one of those ideas people use to separate artists from the rest of the population. Popular culture shows an artist writing or playing or painting like a person possessed, forgetting to eat or wash in the process. They’re overwhelmed by the spirit of creation and must capture it before they lose it.

Perhaps as a reaction to that, many no-nonsense creators simply dismiss it. Show up, do your work, and you don’t need inspiration. Once you start, you’ll find whatever you need along the way. Prolific and successful writers such as Stephen King and Nora Roberts have no time for inspiration, dismissing it as an excuse for failure to produce.

You might share one or other of these views. You may have been inspired and found the experience both thrilling and elusive to repeat, like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Or you get on with hitting your daily word count and find that’s more than enough.

But is it possible that both viewpoints are true?

Seeking The Muse

All the effort in the world won’t matter if you’re not inspired.
Chuck Palahniuk, Diary

The Nine Muses of Ancient Greece were goddesses who symbolised arts and sciences such as poetry, singing, astronomy, drama, and so on.

Artists of the time called on their muse to bring forth their best work.

The idea of the muse as inspiration persisted into the last century, often personified as a woman who inspired a male artist. Sometimes an artist in her own right, she embodied an artistic concept for the man whose work often featured her as a model. Dali, Picasso, Rossetti, and Rodin all drew on their significant relationship with a woman, while Francis Bacon’s muse was male.

The muse reflected the artist’s vision while also challenging him. Her presence as model or sounding board encouraged him to push the boundaries, infusing his pieces with more energy and no doubt encouraging him when the results were viewed with confusion or disdain. Every movement that we now accept in art began with artists who dared to go further, risking the scorn of their contemporaries.

The muse shines her light on a new path and whispers in the artist’s ear, “That is your way forward. Be brave.”

Stealing Fire

 

match_AlexanderStein
AlexanderStein via pixabay

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

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

But if you have inspiration, you can create something much more. Inspiration turns good into great, and great into sublime.

Think about the last time you were struck by an idea. It seemed to come from nowhere. Perhaps you were in the shower or thinking about something else entirely. Perhaps you were half-way through your piece and suddenly you went off in a different direction, as though a billiard ball collided with you.

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

The Ancient Greeks would say your muse had whispered in your ear. Science says that it happened in your brain. Your brain is a collection of a trillion neurons and a quadrillion synapses, a self-regulating system capable of near-miraculous processing.

Neuroscience has evidence that the creative act may involve enhanced neural processes. Normal pattern recognition steps up to a level where the brain can make new connections. That’s creativity – connecting things.

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

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

Fire = kindling + oxygen + skill

Creation = spark of inspiration + kindling of ideas + skill

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

The Power of Habit

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

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

If your spark drifts by and your eyes are closed, you’ll miss it. If you have no materials, or there is no oxygen, you won’t be able to use it. This is where a routine is your friend and constant practice is your teacher.

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

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

Breathing Space

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

Just as a flame needs oxygen, inspiration thrives in open space. An open mind is unusually receptive to new patterns.  You need to clear out the constant chatter of conscious thought. Meditation may be useful but it’s not absolutely necessary. Daydreaming, naming clouds, or watching a raindrop crawl down a window can all quiet the mind and allow new ideas to surface.

Some people get their breakthroughs while in the shower. It’s a time for most of us to let our brains idle. For others, free-writing nudges thinking into a less directed state, as in the morning pages of The Artist’s Way.

Some people move around. Walking, running, swimming or even sweeping a floor might work for you.

A Chance To Dream

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

A tired mind is a slow mind, barely able to cope with the familiar let alone come up with something new. Lack of sleep is so common these days that it’s seen as normal, but to be truly creative you need sufficient rest. The average is six to nine hours, so experiment and find your ideal. Work back from your rising time to find when you need to go to bed.

Find advice about establishing a good sleep habit here or here. It will lengthen your life and make it much more pleasant when awake.

The other reason to sleep more is to get enough REM sleep, the phase during which we dream. Often this phase occurs just before waking naturally, so if your alarm wakes you before you complete your sleep cycle you will miss out.

If you can remember your dreams, keep a notebook by the bed to write them down on waking. Sleep allows the conscious brain to rest and the subconscious to work without distraction. There’s some evidence this can result in more creative insights. Dream recall can be difficult to start but improves with practice.

 

Everything Is Material

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

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

Get out from your routine and search out something new.

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

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

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

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

A Marriage of Opposites

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

When you feel like you’re just plodding along and you’re missing something, seek inspiration.

Build your skillset, sharpen your tools, challenge your capabilities.

Be curious, give your brain space to spark new connections, and always be seeking out new materials to feed it.

If anyone can make this marriage of opposites work, it’s a creative person like you.

Go to it.

To depend entirely upon inspiration is as bad as waiting for a shipwreck to learn how to swim. To leave everything to natural spontaneity is as bad as to make everything the result of mechanical predetermination… perfection is the harmonious blending of the two.
Francois Delsarte


Have a comment or suggestion? Drop it below.

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.

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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.


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