When we think of labor, we often think about unions and steamfitters and autoworkers and construction crews. What about writers?
Writing is labor, too.
Sitting down to write an essay or fiction story or poem or annual report or academic grant may not require you to wear steel-toed boots and get your hands dirty, but there are many forms of labor.
Writing is intellectual labor. Paying attention to your world, tapping into your experiences and memories, researching an unfamiliar culture or practice, thinking about how this sentence can be turned and changed and altered until it sounds like the sweetest tuning fork – that is labor.
Writing is emotional labor. Crafting a story or essay about a personal experience requires feeling that moment all over again, tears and anger and laughter and all. Writing can be cathartic, but the emotions drawn up from the deep well often set us back, makes us think and reconsider, and might even prevent the words from coming to the surface.
Writing is imaginative labor. Imagining a place or a person that doesn’t exist requires a great deal of creativity. Imagining that place or person that doesn’t exist and being able to render that place and person as realistic is an even greater feat. Our imaginations work hard to re-create scenes from the past where the details are now fuzzy – we must imagine them into clarity while being honest and truthful in their representation. We imagine ideas coming to life in tactile form, spinning out of our brains and through our fingertips onto the page or screen. We imagine. And it is exhausting and exhilarating and time-consuming.
And unlike these other, more tangible and visible, forms of labor? Writing is labor that never, ever stops. We don’t work from 6 – 2 or 9 – 5 five days a week. We writers mull ideas over as we watch mindless reality TV, gaze at the garden with a cup of coffee cooling in our hands, and sit in traffic on the way to work. A writer’s mind never stops, never shuts off, never quiets. It is always seeking, thinking, searching, connecting.
That is the beauty and curse of being a writer. Our labor is a 24/7 operation, but we thrive on those flashes of insight that come from the constant hum of ideas rolling around in our imaginations as they collide with daily experiences seen and observed. We love that moment of startling clarity when we know just the right words to use in that scene or ending.
Writers labor, and deserve to be paid for this labor that brings the world fresh stories, new ideas, and original insights.
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! 🙂
I’m over on Teaching Tolerance this week with my suggestions for high school teachers who typically teach Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. Check it out!
Also, a quick report on the New Hampshire Writing and Publishing Retreat that just ended yesterday (Friday, August 21, 2015):
I’m so proud of my participants. I love helping writers come out of the shadows and into the light and this week was no different. These folks worked in teams of two to do global and local edits on one piece of prose (either fiction or nonfiction) that they brought with them. I taught them where to find great places to publish their work and how to critically analyze both the journals and the submission guidelines in order to make better and more accurate selections. Finally, I taught them about elevator pitches and cover letters, both of which they practiced, revised, and perfected before submitting their one piece to three different journals that they researched and selected. They hit “SUBMIT” together yesterday morning and we celebrated mightily. As one woman said, “My heart is pounding so hard!” It was an exciting moment as these writers stepped into the publishing pipeline for the first time. These are the moments that make my heart sing as a writing teacher and coach.
Lastly, a heads-up: I will be teaching a basic creative nonfiction writing workshop with Murphy Writing of Stockton University this January in New Jersey. If you want to learn how to write this flexible and exciting genre, as well as have ample time to create new pieces, consider joining me! I will also be available to do one-on-one tutorials if you want some personal help! Click here for more information (registration opens September 4):
Fellow writers! Please join me for a delightful summer writing vacation this August in New Hampshire. If you write fiction or nonfiction and feel like the publishing industry is this intimidating monolith out there…put those fears aside and come work with me for a week. Better yet, find a writer friend and come together! I promise to change your mind and show you that you CAN publish your work! Join me and learn how to make every writer’s (publishing) dream come true. I will show you the way.
Here’s the official description for my workshop and the link to the web site for more information is below. Hope to see you in New Hampshire! – Amanda
Writing and Publishing Retreat
Most writers want to publish their work, but too many stop short of the final goal due to lack of know-how and fear of rejection. This interactive workshop will support and encourage you as you deepen your understanding of the publishing process. Whether you are writing fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction or personal essays, you will gain confidence and coaching on how to publish your writing including:
Knowing what your audience and the market want
Locating ideal outlets for work—literary journals, small presses, blogs, magazines, regional publications, etc.—and learning how to match your writing to their submission guidelines
Learning how to write an effective cover letter and elevator pitch
Understanding how to build an online platform that will impress agents and editors
Bring your laptop or tablet and a work-in-progress (up to 3,000 words) to put through the stages of revision while learning how to navigate the business of publishing. Before the retreat ends, you will submit your finished piece to one of the markets you evaluated during the week. Once you know how to approach this mysterious industry, it will be a mystery no more. Your work is almost ready, so let’s get it published.
Limited to 12 participants—Led by Amanda Morris
“As a first-time attendee, I was very impressed. My workshop leader, Amanda Morris, was full of energy, interesting, encouraging and inspiring. I would come back just for her, but I very much enjoyed the whole experience!”
~ Susan, Newtown, PA
Live Free and Write Summer Getaway for Writers (all details here, including price, dates, etc)
Each week, check this Monday posting for a selection of current calls for submissions, good writing advice from the interwebs, and legit writing job listings. Fear less, do more.
Calls for Submissions
Lunch Ticket, a literary journal from the MFA community at Antioch University in LA, seeks submissions for its Summer/Fall 2015 issue (Deadline April 30). According to the editor’s note, “Lunch Ticket’s mission is to publish work by under-privileged and under-represented voices, to promote social justice through publishing without hesitation or apology meritorious work that challenges the toxic status quo of oppression.” For this issue, they will consider fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, writing for young people, translations, and visual art. Check out their submission guidelines here:
And now, something for my academic writers out there. You know who you are. Maybe you are a grad student who wants an academic publishing credential for the next step or for a new job…or you already have the job and you now need to start producing and cranking out those scholarly journal articles for tenure and promotion. This article from The Guardian has some good tips and insights. And remember, publishing as an academic isn’t just for fun – your job depends on it, so it’s best to figure out how to do it and then get to work as soon as possible.
Now this sounds like a fun job: Business Publications Writer for AAA East Central. Located in Pittsburgh, PA, the position requires a writer with a BA, proficiency with MS Office, and the ability to work independently. Job responsibilities will include research, writing and editing, collaboration, generating new ideas, photographing club events and assisting with executive speeches. Sounds pretty cool, eh? And I can vouch for Pittsburgh being a great place to live, work, and play – I grew up there. 🙂
No matter what you do for a living, chances are extremely high that you write on the job. Did you know that companies spend over $3 billion a year helping their employees learn how to write better? That’s a lot of scratch. And just because your boss hasn’t brought in a pro like me to help you improve your writing skills doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on them. Why is that?
Because writing is considered a threshold skill that often determines whether you get promoted. Employers want employees who can write well, bottom line. You may get hired with average or sub-par skills because your expertise in other areas is extraordinary, but without showing improvement, chances are you won’t be tapped to move up the ladder.
What to do? Obviously, a single blog post about this issue should not be the end of your journey as you seek to improve your on-the-job writing skills. Start by making a list of all the written documents you produce on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. An annual report is only written once a year, but you send emails every day. And if your inbox looks anything like mine, you have my sympathies.
The important thing to remember is to be clear, concise, and professional in all written communication, and that includes being a prolific proofreader BEFORE you send that document on its way. When you look at that list of writing you regularly produce, you should quickly realize that you need to allow for time to revise and proofread.
I recently asked my students how many of them proofread written projects before they turn them in for grades. Very few hands went up. Then I asked them how many proofread emails before sending them. Three quarters of the room raised their hands. I asked them what the difference was. They said with emails, someone on the other end cares what it says and how it is constructed.
As a writing professor, this is fascinating to me. We actually discussed it because I enjoy hearing students’ perspectives on such differences and the distinctions they make when writing. To me, their perception that professors don’t care about their written projects speaks volumes about how we handle writing across the university – and it doesn’t speak well. But also interesting was their distinct awareness that emails within and without the university setting matter more.
So imagine how important those emails are that YOU send every single day. If you aren’t proofreading every email, then you are missing out on an opportunity and are not giving this important and common form of communication its due.
Let’s fix that. Here are four tips to help you write stronger, clearer, and more professional emails at work:
1. Lead with a proper greeting that includes the correct use (and spelling) of the recipient’s name (Dear John, Good day Dr. Stevens, Good morning Susan) Sidebar: Note that I did not include a comma to set off the direct address in these greetings. Rules such as these are quickly being dropped in our modern world, and in emails, the non-comma form of direct address has become common. Grammar Underground has a good piece on this phenomenon. So if you just cringed at my lack of commas in the direct addresses, I would advise you to relax and adapt. 🙂
2. Be specific. People are busy, so respect their time and get right to the point of WHY you are writing. Don’t ramble, or lead in with a long explanation or background about the problem or situation. If you want to meet about something, then ask for the meeting (Good morning John! I’d like to meet next week to discuss (topic). Please let me know a good time on Tuesday or Wednesday that works for you. Thanks much!) You can verbally provide that background in the meeting. Or better yet, provide a handout with a bullet point list.
3. See #2. Ask for action. Say thank you.
4. Proofread for spelling, misused words, unclear statements, and punctuation errors. Fix those before hitting send.
If you follow these four simple tips with EVERY email you write, your written communication will improve tenfold, your recipients will no longer be annoyed with your emails, and your boss will think better of you. Try it today!
Each week, check this Monday posting for a selection of current calls for submissions, good writing advice from the interwebs, and legit writing job listings. Fear less, do more. And may we all have a productive and successful 2015!
Calls for Submissions
If you know a high school student who is a passionate, committed writer or artist, share this info: Jet Fuel Review is actively seeking submissions in nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and art from high schoolers for the Spring 2015 issue. They seem to want quality work that resonates with individuality, writing on the Editorial Tastes page, “Your work should be something that can only come from you, that stems from who you are and what you believe.” Deadline is March 15 and the submission guidelines are here:
I can vouch for the positive effect that writing your own stories can have. For me, it is healing and absolutely helps me to process thoughts, feelings, and conflicts in a much healthier way. My friend passed this article along to me and she is right, it is definitely worth sharing here. I hope that this validates your own personal writing efforts, or provides the encouragement necessary to get you started:
If you have 3-5 years of experience writing and publishing online content and have “a strong passion for animal welfare, environmental rights, holistic health, sustainable living and progressive issues,” then this full time Staff Writer position with Care2.com in their Redwood, CA office might be the job for you! Check out the link to the job ad below:
Imagine reading your favorite novel or creative nonfiction book (Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, perhaps, or Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World) without any sensory details.
In fact, I challenge you right now. Go pick up that book that you are reading. Flip to a page, any page. Now scan carefully for any and all sensory details.
Let us review what sensory details are: They are details that engage all five senses (Smell, Taste, Touch, Hearing, Sight). Now, I must say that as a writing teacher and coach, I see lots and lots of “sight” details in students’ writings. Visual details – how a place or a person or a thing looks – you’ve all got that down. It’s the other senses that are all too often neglected – to the detriment of your work. Sensory details bring scenes to life and allow readers to really be in that moment with the characters. Without sensory details, what could be an engaging, evocative passage that generates some kind of emotional response is, instead, bland, dull, and dry prose that doesn’t hold any reader’s attention. In fact, it may cause them to say,”See? I told you TV was more interesting and fun than books!” Heaven forbid.
So now that we are on the same page about what sensory details are, allow me to show you some examples to prove my point. I always find that examples are more vivid and convincing than straight lecture, so here we go.
This first passage was provided by Tawnysha Greene, a good friend of mine who has her first novel, House Made of Stars, coming out with Burlesque Press this year. I asked my writer volunteers to submit a passage from one of their published works with the sensory details in place (as it was or will be published) and that same passage with all sensory details removed. This first passage is from chapter 45 of T’s novel. In this scene, the father is teaching the narrator and her sister how to swim in a river.
Scene without details:
I open my mouth for air, look up. “Homing pigeons,” he called them as we drove to the river. “People take them to the valley and release them,” said Daddy, “and the birds follow them back. Sometimes, they beat their masters home.”
He points to them. I close my eyes, breathe in. I smell…everything Daddy says guides these birds home.
As T says, pretty awful, right? Of course her dialogue is strong, obviously, but watch what happens to this scene when she puts the sensory details in.
Scene with sensory details:
I open my mouth for air, look up and see the sky, a flock of white birds overhead. “Homing pigeons,” he called them as we drove to the river. “People take them to the valley and release them,” said Daddy, “and the birds follow them back. Sometimes, they beat their masters home.”
He points to them, and I can feel the vibrations of his voice through his hand. I close my eyes, breathe in, and the cold is less biting than it was before. I smell the damp earth, red clay on the riverbanks, and the yellow dust on the pine trees, everything Daddy says guides these birds home.
Now this passage is captivating, full of relevant sensory details that allow the reader to FEEL this place and this moment in a way that pure dialogue doesn’t allow. To read the full published version of this scene (that was originally a poem called “Homing Pigeons”), click this link.
This next passage was provided by another good friend, author Suzanne Samples. This passage appears in “Chekhov’s Toothbrush,” her award-winning short fiction piece that appears in the recently published anthology, Modern Shorts: 18 Short Stories from Fiction Attic Press.
Here is the passage without sensory details:
Before I can sift through the stack of papers in the corner, I freeze. Did she forget her keys? Drop the list? Leave her wallet? Will she find me digging through her closet?
It’s the cat. It’s always the cat.
The cat shoves her paw under the bedroom door. The same paw that knocked my toothbrush into the toilet and created this whole mess. Without a doubt, I know that the cat has knocked over the soda I left on the counter.
I will deal with that mess later.
The mess in front of me needs me more.
The action and movement is this scene is captivating and raises questions, but watch what happens when Suzanne adds the sensory details.
Passage with sensory details:
Before I can sift through the stack of papers in the corner, I hear a crash and freeze. Did she forget her keys? Drop the list? Leave her wallet? Will she find me digging through her closet like a mole rat searching for a worm?
I feel just as naked.
Bang. Drip. Fuck.
It’s the cat. It’s always the cat.
The cat shoves her jellybean-toed paw under the bedroom door. The same paw that smells of shit and pine-scented litter, the same paw that knocked my toothbrush into the toilet and created this whole mess.
The cat meows at me from the other side, taunting me to leave the potential clues behind. Without a doubt, I know that the cat has knocked over the sticky soda I left on the counter.
I will deal with that mess later.
The mess in front of me needs me more.
Sight, sound, scent, and even a humorous simile – these strategically-placed sensory details bring this scene to life, heighten the tension, and allow the reader to experience this moment with the character as it happens in a more engaging way. To read the entire story, you’ll have to buy the book, but for anyone who loves contemporary fiction, it will be a wonderful investment. Plus, the Kindle edition is only six bucks. Click here for Modern Shorts‘ Amazon page.
The final passage is from a friend I met at the Prose and Poetry Getaway in NJ last year – Trish is working on a memoir now, but has many publishing credits. She generously provided an opening passage to a vignette from her published memoir, They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad.
The vignette title is “High Heels.” Here it is without sensory details:
I awake in a facility. My throat tells me my tonsils have indeed been removed. I lie there waiting, not sure what will happen next. I drift in and out of sleep. I am seven.
Then I hear her coming. I instantly know that is my mother. She hugs me. I know that she has postponed or interrupted something important to be with me, know that I am more important to her than any unfinished business. She strokes my head and gives me ginger ale until I drift back to sleep.
Today, more than 40 years later, my mother now lies alone. It is she who awaits a visit, awaits someone to comfort her, to assuage her fears and loneliness. To give her a sip of water. I am the one who brings the outside world into her room. And I too soon leave her alone again.
You can sense the potential impact of these connected moments, but it feels like the author is holding us at an arm’s length, not letting us all the way in. Watch what happens when all of the senses are purposely engaged. It is akin to magic.
Vignette with sensory details:
I awake from an ether-induced stupor, alone in a cold, sterile facility. The pain in my throat tells me my tonsils have indeed been removed. I lie there waiting, not sure what will happen next. Still groggy from the anesthesia, I drift in and out of sleep. I am alone and scared. I am seven.
Then I hear her coming, hear her high heels clicking rapidly down the hall. I instantly know that is my mother. She breezes into my room like a breath of fresh air, exuding her typical high level of energy and self-confidence. She hugs me, and I can feel the excitement of her world of business and politics emanating from her professional garb. I know that she has postponed or interrupted something important to be with me, know that I am more important to her than any unfinished business. She strokes my head and gives me ginger ale until I drift back to sleep. But I can still hear the distant clicking of her high heels when she leaves.
Today, more than 40 years later, it is my high heels that click down a sterile hallway to where my 87-year-old mother now lies alone. It is she who awaits a visit, awaits someone to comfort her, to assuage her fears and loneliness. To give her a sip of water. I am the one who brings the sights and sounds of the outside world into her little room. And I am the one whose heels she hears getting fainter as I too soon leave her alone again.
Not only do the sensory details take it to the publishable level, but they infuse the vignette with power and credibility. The detailed passage is like a punch to the gut – you really feel this moment now with the author and it hurts – she has made us care by incorporating well-chosen and relevant sensory details. You can purchase Trish’s memoir from her site (linked above) or from Amazon if you’d like to read all 300 vignettes.
Notice in all of these example passages the light touch – the authors don’t go overboard and weigh down their prose with too many sensory details – that would be distracting. Instead, they deploy sensory details in a way that adds spice to an already strong and well-developed scene.
Just as you wouldn’t skip the cinnamon when baking cinnamon buns, please don’t skip those spicy sensory details that readers love. Your audience will thank you for including them. 🙂