The Best Writing Advice Evah!

In response to my crowdsource request for “the best writing advice you have to offer,” here are the results, with a few of my own thrown in for good measure. Because advice is always best when passed along. :)

1. “Revising is easier than writing. Start somewhere. Anywhere.”

2. “Ever see the film A River Runs Through It? Tom Skerritt is the boys’ father and is teaching them how to write. His son comes in with an essay, Skerritt marks it up, hands it back and  says “Half as long.” I’ve always been a fan of concision. (Just not in this comment.) There’s also a book!

3. “Write what you know. Simple, classic, and true.” (The classics never go out of style!)

4.  “Most of the best writing concerning our given topic normally comes at the end. For example, that aha! moment happens more often than not at the end of the paper/essay and it is where the real creative parts of your thoughts begin. If you are struggling with an essay because of a lack of substantial information, or really trying to rethink your thesis, Start at the end. Find that part where your thoughts really coalesce. Once you find that spot, start from there and REWRITE. I can’t stress the idea of “rewriting.” Rewriting as not as starting over, but a way of restating exactly what it is you are trying to say in the first place. In doing so, you create something new. The end is often the beginning and the best part of your writing! I have used this every time I struggle and it has helped tremendously every time I am stuck or revising.”

5. “Breathe, [insert your name here]. Breathe.”

6. “I find I get the best results by trying to weave together two ideas; call it the Reese’s Theory. It lends the prose a complexity and depth and sometimes generates that elusive unplanned creativity – you know, ‘Wow, did I write that?’ It also helps me to concentrate on the idea content instead of the style. As advice goes, perhaps it is not all that useful to others, but in that instance when you struggle to decide between two equally compelling concepts – I say, try using them both!”

7. “Not only does the First Draft of something NOT have to be perfect, but it doesn’t even have to be GOOD. It is a “Zero Draft,” and once you have gotten it out of the way, you can comfortably begin.” (I love this idea of a “Zero Draft.” It would make writing it a lot less intimidating, I suspect.)

8. There is no such thing as perfect when it comes to writing. Polished, clean prose? Yes. Well-written, well-structured, and well-organized? Absolutely. Perfect? No way. Stop putting so much pressure on yourself to achieve “perfect.” Stop chasing the unicorn.

9. “Think of writing in small chunks or “islands.”  Then writing doesn’t seem so big and scary.” (I now do this with almost everything I write and it really works!)

10. “Always end your writing for the day in the middle of a thought or a paragraph. It cuts down on writer’s block the next day, because you know exactly where to begin.

11. “Give yourself the space and time to write. Schedule it, and prep your writing space accordingly.

12.  “Speak from the heart when you write.” (Another variation of this excellent advice is to spill your guts on the page. I love that. And it really does result in prose that other people want to read.)

13.  “Do 3-5 minutes of freewriting right before you begin your writing session. Sketch out the scene you are going to write or the next part of your article. It will put you in the right mindset so you can dive right in instead of facing that blinking cursor cold.”

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And because I’m not superstitious in the least, I’m leaving it at 13. Now what are you waiting for? Go tackle that writing project! :)

 

Midweek Writing Prompt: Family Member as Character (11/19/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: Family member as character

Imagine your family member in his or her favorite space. See him in that space. See her move through it, use it. Where is it? Which room or outdoor location is it? What does it look like, smell like, feel like? What’s the air temperature? What activity is she doing – how is she interacting with this space? Is she making something? Doing something? What does he look like – what is he wearing? What does her hair look like? (In Steel Magnolias, the mom is described as having hair like a brown football helmet – think in terms of similes (like, as) and create a simile for one of your family member’s physical features.) What are his physical imperfections? What does his breath smell like? What bad habit comes to life in this space?

In order to truly understand someone, you need to go beneath the surface. But sometimes exploring the surface will reveal truths about the person. The goal with this writing prompt is to write a deep description of your family member without using his or her name, and technical physical details (Lauren Small, 5 foot 7 inches, brown hair, slightly chubby). Instead, use the above questions (and others that they inspire) to write a description that is deeply settled in a specific space – help us to see, hear, smell, and feel this person in the way that YOU see, hear, smell, and feel this person. Allow your descriptions to speak about your deep love and care – without ever saying that you love and care for him or her. Write in third person. (No “I”.)

This prompt will be especially useful for anyone writing a memoir that involves their family.

 

So you want to be a freelance writer (part two): Be the go-to writer

One surefire way to be successful as a freelance writer is to be the go-to writer. So what is that?

Basically, you need to become indispensable to your editors. How? Easy. You’ll have to set pride aside and treat your freelancing as the job that it is. You don’t have a boss standing over your shoulder demanding that you perform, so you have to perform that role for yourself.

1. Don’t be an entitled, demanding primadonna who only takes the choicest and most exciting assignments with the greatest readership. Do you want to make a living or not? Then suck it up and take some assignments that just aren’t as thrilling. Stop acting as though you’re so much better than those lowly stories.

2. Pitch and accept the writing assignments that no one else wants (covering school board and township meetings and writing holiday features) to become your editor’s favorite go-to writer. In fact, if you can show your skills by taking those dull, lowly assignments that the staff writers dread and write them with some aplomb and flair, your editor will be impressed and likely ask you to continue taking on bigger and better stories.*

3. Build up goodwill by being willing to take the boring, dull, and pencil-in-the-eye back page stories, and better assignments will flow your way much faster. Be a diva demanding only the most exciting features at your peril – no one will want to work with you.

* Warning: When you transform articles that are usually dry, uninteresting sawdust into lively and stylish gems, don’t be surprised if your editor asks you to continue doing those pieces even after the bigger assignments role in. After all, she’s got a good thing going with you. However, please note that you may elect to continue doing these smaller, less interesting pieces because they are good, steady money. And what writer doesn’t enjoy being paid for their craft? :)

Writing Consultation involves what?

If you are the owner of a business, the manager of a department, or an executive in charge of a team, chances are your employees write quite a bit in the course of the work week, communicating internally and externally for a variety of purposes. According to the National Writing Project’s Writing: A Ticket to Work or a Ticket Out: A Survey of Business Leaders, “As advanced technology in the workplace plays a more significant role, good writing skills are increasingly valued” by businesses. In fact, according to the leaders of 120 American companies (that employee nearly 8 million people), “Writing is a ‘threshold skill’ for hiring and promotion among salaried (i.e., professional) employees. Survey results indicate that writing is a ticket to professional opportunity” (nwp.org). Consider that two-thirds of salaried employees in large American companies have some writing responsibility.

“Manufacturing documentation, operating procedures, reporting problems, lab safety, waste disposal operations—all have to be crystal clear,” said one human resource director. Even more sobering is one executive’s concise observation that “You can’t move up without writing skills.” (Writing Ticket to Work)

You know this to be true: An employee who writes well is a valuable asset to your business by presenting a professional image to clients, customers, and internal co-workers. Employees who write well make you and your business more credible and trustworthy. If you have silently struggled with great employees who just need to brush up on certain skills such as email etiquette, formal report memo writing, persuasive sales letter composition, or any other business communication required in your company, contact me today to start the conversation.

I offer a variety of writing consultation services for clients, but work with you to customize a plan to meet your needs. Such a plan may include time spent with staff (either in person or online) on a specific project to ensure that the writing is crystal clear, accessible to a varied audience, and to guarantee that the structure of the document is well-organized. Another plan might involve editing a document for clarity, sentence structure, and word choice, and then conducting a series of two-hour writing workshops to teach your team editing tips and proofreading techniques to improve their skills. Whether you want your team to understand the importance of audience, purpose, active voice, and appropriate tone in written documents, or you want select employees to become better skilled at communicating company messages in digital environments such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, I can tailor a plan to address your needs.

 

Email Amanda today to start the conversation: amandamorrisphd (at) gmail (dot) com  or complete the contact form below.

Writing the *#)%(*$% title

I hate titles. Always have. I’m a fantastic writer, but I suck at titles. When I was a journalist, editors would constantly change my titles, never satisfied with the one I toiled over. Sometimes I hit on a good one, but that’s a rarity. Similar to my chances of striking gold were I to pan at one of those touristy roadside panning places out West. Usually, my search for a good title is kind of like searching for the elusive Sheepsquatch or Abominable Snowperson. You suspect it’s out there, you’ve heard stories and legends and myths about writers being really good at titles, and you’re pretty sure you can figure it out. And yet, it eludes you. Just out of reach. Out of range of your night-vision goggles. Always taunting from the shadows.

Most recently, I wrote a long creative nonfiction piece about a particular idea and experience (purposefully being vague because I’m hoping the publishing gods smile upon me for this one), and my writing group was not only clutch for catching those tinkering revisions that we all must suffer, but one friend actually came up with the perfect title. And when she made that suggestion, it was like the proverbial seas parting and angels weeping. I heard bells. But perhaps that was just a developing migraine. I just stared at her and finally said, “How did you come up with that?! And why can’t I come up with a title like that?!” I was extremely thankful, of course, but also mind-boggled that some people are just THAT good with titles and others just aren’t. We’re all fellow writers, but only some of us have the title touch. (And thank heavens she’s in MY writing group!) :)

If you feel my pain because you have similar difficulties with titles, thank you for letting me know that I’m not alone. Also, I have some great advice about how to write a good title that I share with my students every semester. And you know the thing about great advice. . .it’s always best when passed on. So here goes:

Titles should be descriptive, compelling, and preferably brief to grab a reader’s attention and set the stage for the story or essay or poem to follow.

Titles provide focus and should be creatively evocative (suggestive) of the story’s/poem’s/essay’s content. Be imaginative and try not to rely on trite, obvious, or clichéd phrases.

Writing a good title is a bit of an art, so you may change it several times until you hit on one that sounds right!

Strive to:

  • be creative if the occasion allows for it. Play with words, find interesting quotes from the text, surprise your reader through tone, juxtaposition, analogy, etc.  In other words, get the reader’s attention and make him/her want to read your work!  Example: “The Art of the Nap,” “The Loneliness of the Military Historian,” or “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Elvis.”
  • be informative. The title should always provide a clear idea of what the story/poem/essay is about, what its main ideas are, and what it’s working with.  Example: “Digital Networks and Citizenship,” “The Golden Age of the Broadway Musical.”
  • join attention-getting and informative parts of your title with a : if necessary. This is for my academic writers. All hail the colon. Example: “The Invisible Discourse of the Law: Reflections on Legal Literacy and General Education.”
  • remember to change the title if the focus of your story/poem/essay changes.

And finally, write your title last.

 

Sample titles from  published essays (for inspiration!):

“She’s Nothing Like We Thought” (Molly McGlennon)

“The Spirit of Language” (Neil McKay)

“The Secret of Breathing” (Steve Elm)

“Being Brians” (Brian Doyle)

“Finders Keepers: The Story of Joey Coyle” (Mark Bowden)

“Going Native” (Francine Prose)

“Why I Ride” (Jana Richman)

“Of the Coming of John” (W.E.B. DuBois)

“How It Feels to Be Colored Me” (Zora Neale Hurston)

“Once More to the Lake” (E.B. White)

“No Name Woman” (Maxine Hong Kingston)

“Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood” (Richard Rodriguez)

“Petrified” (John Lahr)

“Fathead’s Hard Times” (W.S. DiPiero)

“The Comfort Zone” (Jonathan Franzen)

“If Memory Doesn’t Serve” (Ian Frazier)

“Six Seconds” (Paula Speck)

“A Sudden Illness” (Laura Hillenbrand)

“My Yiddish” (Leonard Michael)

“Envy” (Kathryn Chetkovich)

 

Now go forth and be fruitful, title writers. And help your writing friends who suck at them. Consider it a valuable public service. Thank you.

Midweek Writing Prompt: Experiment with Montage (11/12/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: Experiment with Montage

This prompt involves experimenting with a new style. One of the best ways to improve your writing skills is to push yourself outside your comfort zone. We can often get stuck by comfort and familiarity. We have a particular approach or style and we keep using it over and over. When is the last time you tried a new writing style?

Montage writing is a series of fast, hyper-detailed, short words or phrases that give the reader a snapshot. Think of a quick series of photographs or movie scenes flashing quickly by. You don’t have time to stop and explain – you have to capture the essence of the place, the person, the idea in a concise series of words. In film, montage is a series of shots that tells a story without dialogue. Apply this idea to a place or a idea or even a person. Try to tell a story of that place or idea or person using only a short series of words or phrases.

Here are some quickly-rendered examples for you:

Place montage: Cream-colored walls. Photos sagging. Paper chaos. Office space.

Person montage: Smiling brown eyes. Huggable body. Unconditional lover.

Idea montage: “Boys will be boys.” Microaggressions. Headlines protest. Nothing changes.

 

Montage can be incorporated into a longer narrative, or even used as section breaks. Montage can be active or passive, lyrical or blunt. So push yourself outside your comfort zone and try something new. You will be pleasantly surprised at the results. And the more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll become with this new style.

Write reviews to build a publishing record

To increase your writing experience and exposure and build a publishing record, try writing reviews. Think reviews of books, movies, places, restaurants, the latest gadgets related to your expertise or favorite hobby. Whether you operate in academic or consumer-oriented publishing spheres, there are publications in print and online that publish reviews. Most do not pay except in experience and exposure.

The easiest way to begin is to locate calls for submissions and respond to them. When I presented at the Popular and American Culture Conference two years ago, I walked around the public spaces and publisher areas of the convention hotel. Lo and behold, I discovered a flyer announcing a call for book reviews from the Journal of American Culture. As soon as I got home, I searched Amazon for soon-to-be-published scholarly books in my specialty. I selected two, then pitched book reviews on those two texts to the editor of the JAC. She said yes and we were off and running. I read the books, wrote the reviews, submitted them, went through a peer-review process wherein I had to make some revisions and additions to each review, and then waited until they were both accepted and I received confirmation of a publish date. I was able to include those reviews on my CV and in my tenure binders this year. You can do this, too.

On the consumer side, sometimes you have to take the reins and pitch an idea to an editor even when there is no active call for submissions. I have a story to share here as well. When I was in Auburn, AL working on my Ph.D., I wanted a break from dissertation writing. I craved public writing in a way that was more official than my personal, anonymous blog and in a way that harkened back to my ten years as a journalist. So I located the editor’s name of the weekly cultural newspaper and asked if I could start reviewing local restaurants for them. The editor was enthusiastic, said yes, and agreed to my first suggestion – a new sushi restaurant. Not only did I get to enjoy and write about some delicious and artistically-designed sushi, I also got paid $25 for my effort. You may scoff at $25, but for a small local newsweekly, that’s actually a good amount of money. In fact, after I’d written several reviews and knew that the editor was happy with my efforts, I asked for more money. They upped my rate to $40. You can do this, too.

Years ago when I was a freelance journalist, I spent a majority of my time pitching and writing feature stories for newspapers and consumer magazines. But at one point, I wanted to combine my love of travel and adventure with my craft and profession of writing. So I sought out local and regional publications that seemed open to travel-related reviews. Because I had a solid publishing track record, the editors I approached didn’t hesitate to agree to my pitch suggestions. One place was a farm B&B with horseback riding. I got to spend the weekend riding horses, playing with the barn cats, talking food and history and B&B business details with the owners and guests, and then I wrote about my experience in the review with recommendations for future visitors. That story gave the next editor confidence and I landed a review story about a hidden gem of a B&B in a castle in Maryland. You can do this, too.

Another strategy for finding outlets for reviews includes reading the magazines, journals, and web sites that you’d like to write for and then pitch them ideas. Also consider using your writing group and other social and family/friend/colleague networks. Ask around. See if anyone you know has a suggestion about where you might publish a review.

The benefits of writing reviews are clear: You get to read books, try new restaurants, visit new places, and watch movies that you’re interested in before writing a comprehensive, detailed, truthful, and entertaining review. In addition, reviews are fast to write, fast to publish, and you can use them on your CV or resume and in cover letters to show you have a publishing record – editors will have more confidence in you because you’re a proven commodity.

You must put yourself out there to gain experience. No one will come looking for you to offer opportunities. When you are a writer, you must make your own opportunities to build your publishing record and improve your success rate with future editors.

Building your writer’s resume

Starting out as a writer can be an intimidating process. You have no publishing credentials, so automatically feel like you can’t compete for publishing acceptances. You have no experience and worry that this marks you as an amateur. Why would anyone give YOU a chance?

Editors will give you a chance if your ideas are strong and well-presented, and your work is well-written, and you present yourself with confidence.

Remember, editors want to work with writers they feel they can trust. When you are starting out, you must take on the attitude of an experienced writer in order to become one.

Here are three areas to consider when building your writer’s resume, whether you intend to operate as a fulltime freelance writer, or just want to add published works to your resume to set yourself apart from your competition for jobs.

Bread and butter clients. This is for the freelancers. When you operate a freelance writing business (and it IS a business, make no mistake), you must seek out a short list of ‘bread and butter’ clients. These are the people you write for all the time. The people who will call you for the smallest writing job. The ones who use your writing services every month. These are the people who pay you well and on time, thus allowing you to pay YOUR bills well and on time. You need to cultivate a few of these so that you have steady customers as the foundation of your business. These clients might include a local or regional magazine editor, a nonprofit organization, a small company or department of a large corporation, the editor of a trade publication, or a celebrity who needs a ghost writer for various projects. The people who fall into the category of ‘bread and butter clients’ can be an extremely diverse group and will change over time, but concentrate on developing these relationship early on in your business and you will have a solid foundation upon which to grow.

Diversity of publications. Unless you are specializing and concentrating on one particular genre or subject specialty within one medium, you should strive to diversify your publications in order to gain a wider range of experience and to increase the types of publications you can write for in the future. If you can point to a restaurant trade publication that you wrote for two years ago, that editor of a food service trade pub that you just met might be more inclined to give you a chance. If you want to publish a novel and are seeking a publisher, that publisher will be more likely to consider your novel draft if you can show her several short fiction stories published in different literary journals. If you want to publish a memoir, you must understand that you are an unproven commodity in a growing, but highly competitive, field, and publishing houses are in business to make money, which means if you can show substantial and varied creative nonfiction publications (literary journals, web sites, consumer magazines), then you are more likely to be considered seriously. Academic writers can expand their publications by addressing those scholarly peer-reviewed journals first (because those count the most toward tenure and promotion), but can diversify by writing about issues in their specialties in more public venues. The more you publish and the more variety you can work into your publishing practice, the better you will become as a writer, and the better positioned you will be to accept new assignments.

Streams of writing opportunities. This is related to the first two in that you must be open to new and different streams of writing in order to improve your skills, grow your reputation as a writer, and gain attention from editors, fellow writers, and fans. Be open and seek out new opportunities. Read listservs, scour calls for papers and submissions, look at the submission guidelines for your favorite blogs, web sites, and publications. Create works for those places and always have something out. This is how successful writers operate.

 

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