Midweek Writing Prompt: Thanksgiving Dinner (11/26/14)

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: Thanksgiving Dinner

Write a detailed scene showing one moment of the dinner that won’t happen this year. (This can obviously be taken many ways.) Be sure to include all five senses, dialogue, and moments of reflection.

See what happens. You might be surprised.

Write better emails at work

No matter where you work, if sending emails is a regular part of your job, then this post is for you. Especially if you respond to work emails from your smartphone. Professional written communication is essential to the hiring and promotion process. Send sloppy emails and your boss, clients, and co-workers won’t think as highly of you.

Before I get into the meaty specifics, it is worthy to mention the danger of mass emails. Too often, when people feel overly comfortable in the workplace, they may be inclined to send an email to everyone. Perhaps it is announcing their kid’s cookie sale, or sharing an article about the state of the field, or maybe something even worse, like showing their emotional cards by saying borderline inappropriate statements about a situation at work.

These emails are dangerous and I suggest you stay away from them. Those who take the bait and jump in the “reply-all” battle of words are putting themselves at risk, too, simply for participating. Better to let those mass emails and battle threads pass by unacknowledged. If you value your reputation in the workplace, you will refrain from sending or participating in such threads. Trust me, everyone is watching. The last thing you need is to be considered a workplace troublemaker. Challenge the rules and conventions in more formal settings, using the structure of your organization, but don’t delve into these often petty and childish mass email threads.

On to some specifics about composing professional email correspondence:

1. Digital precision. When crafting or responding to an email on your smartphone, iPhone, tablet or other digital device, be extra vigilant about spelling, punctuation, word choice, and other sentence-level errors that lead to those mocking memes where auto-correct mangled someone’s message. In personal correspondence, this can be funny. In professional scenarios, mistakes like these may not be as well-received and your professionalism and attention to detail will be questioned.

2. Open with a personalized greeting. Don’t write “Hey!” or “Dear editor” or “Attention webmaster.” Impersonal, vague greetings such as these will probably irritate the recipient. Spend a few extra minutes figuring out the NAME of your recipient, at the very least. And if you aren’t sure whether to use the first or last name? The safe default is always “Dear Dr. Smith,” “Good day, Ms. Beebonnet,” or “Hello Mr. Hedgehog.” You get the point. Professional email communication begins with a professional and personal greeting.

3. Introduce why you are writing. If this is someone you’ve dealt with before, you can always refresh their memory about who you are and why you are corresponding. “Good day, Joe. I’m writing to continue our discussion about implementing the “No More Meeting” policy in our Denver office.” Or, if this is a cold email to someone in your company, “Good morning, Rita. I’m a professor in the English department and I’m having trouble with the Adobe Acrobat that was installed on my office computer.” As you can see, getting right to the point and being specific about WHY you are writing and WHO you are is essential.

4. State your case, make your point, ask your question. Nobody has time anymore. The recipient of a long-winded, meandering email may become an enemy for life. Think of being concise and clear as one small way to gain allies, or at least a friendly face in the crowd who won’t mock you behind your back for constantly wasting their time and never getting to the point. Plus, bosses love when you are clear and concise. Want to impress? Be clear and concise in the body of your email.

5. Say thank you. Close your email with a polite closing statement that acknowledges the recipient’s time and effort. “Thank you for your time in considering this matter. I look forward to your response” is always a good generic closer; adapt as needed.

6. Proofread. Re-read #1 and realize that goofs in emails happen even when you are well-caffeinated and sitting at your office desk at full attention at ten in the morning. Don’t hit the SEND button until you proofread and fix any punctuation, spelling, word choice, or sentence structure errors. We like to talk a lot in the academy about “home language” versus “professional language” (to simplify), but what this means is that when you are at work, you do not write or speak the way you do at home. At work, you should elevate and formalize your language a bit if you want to be taken seriously. No LOL, SMH, or WTF in the work emails. No misspelled words. Add in the appropriate punctuation. Don’t use slang. Yes, people will judge you for not making the effort to code-switch in this manner. So do yourself a favor and proofread before hitting SEND.

 

 

 

 

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.”

———————————-

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.

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