The secret to successful writing.
Please welcome guest author Marcy McKay with her top secret for successful writing.
You finally muster the courage to let someone else read your work. A live human being, a person who is actually qualified to share his or her opinion on your writing (unlike your Great Aunt Edna who thinks everything you do is perfect).
This individual reads your piece and gives a vague response. “It’s good. I mean, I like it, but something is missing.”
It’s similar to when you try to duplicate that delicious pizza from your favorite restaurant on your own. It tastes okay, but something still seems off – just not quite right.
So, what’s that certain spice for your writing? The recipe for literary success?
The secret ingredient is you.
That’s right. In order to succeed at writing, you must be 100% yourself on the page. This is true for fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, whether you pursue publication or not.
Are You Missing from Your Writing?
Writing is a process. It takes time, patience, and practice to excel at your craft. In fact, much more time, patience, and practice than we’d like. Sometimes, that means years. I wish I could say exactly how long it takes, but writing is an art, so it’s not defined. Everyone’s journey is different.
However, the obvious point so many people miss is that the more you write, the better you become. You’ll excel faster, too.
There are many reasons why you may be missing from your writing. They’re all variations of fear, but here are a few:
- Newbies: You’re still getting know yourself as a writer. Stop playing it safe. When you honor your dream to write, your words will thank you for it. They will be stronger, bolder, and more like the real you.
- Smarty Pants: You’re trying to sound more intelligent to impress others. Know this: you’re smart enough, right now. I’ve read amazing authors with little formal education, and I’ve read authors with MFAs in writing whose books were so bland I couldn’t finish them.
- Copycat: You’re trying too hard to imitate your favorite author. The world already has one Michael Cunningham, and he already won the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours. He’s amazing, but we don’t need another one. What readers need is you. Nobody else sees life exactly like you do (even if you have an identical twin).
Your Own Secret to Success
To be the best writer you can be—to be the real you—comes down to just one word: honesty.
If writing came with a recipe it would be one part you plus one part honesty. Mix well and enjoy success.
You, the real you, is simmering inside, waiting to be poured onto the page. Whether it’s fiction, poetry, or nonfiction.
- Your Readers Will Like You More: Your writing needs to reflect your true self. It shows when you’re faking it on the page. If you don’t like or care about what you’re writing, your readers will know it. Passion, on the other hand, is contagious. We like people who keep it real.
- Your Soul Will Like You More: Life happens 24/7 all around us—personal problems, stresses at work, financial difficulties, health struggles. Words save us; they show us and others how we feel. In return, we need to bravely write about the good, the bad, and the ugly for either our imaginary characters or in the real world. We must be true to ourselves.
How to Bring More of You to the Page
There’s a saying, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”
In order to achieve such intense vulnerability, you must do the following:
- Check your Gut: Our best writing comes from a deep place inside us, a place not all writers have discovered yet, but it’s there for us all. That’s where the truest, rawest, purest form of ourselves resides and where we’ll find the best writing.
- The Double T: If whatever you’re contemplating writing both thrills you and terrifies you, then you’re on the right track. It may frighten you to do so, but keep going. Otherwise, it’s not the right subject for you.
- Practice Means Progress: The more you write with such brutal honesty, the less you care about the outcome (did they like it or not?). You’ve honored yourself, and your readers will love you for it.
I hope this post helps you bring success to the page each and every time.
How honest are you in your writing? If you’re not, what do you need to do differently for greater success?
About the author: Marcy McKay is the “Energizer Bunny of Writers.” She believes writing is delicious and messy and hard and important. If you’ve ever struggled with your writing, you can download her brand new and totally FREE eBook, Writing Naked: One Writer Dares to Bare All. Find her on Facebook!
Are you a stickler for good grammar?
“I don’t like to end sentences with prepositions,” my friend said while we were discussing ways to restructure a sentence.
“But it’s fiction,” I told her, “In college, as a creative writing major, I was taught to learn the rules, and then break them.”
In this case, it sounded unnatural to write the sentence without ending it with a preposition. Following the rules too rigidly is especially problematic in dialogue. Nobody would say “To which store are you going?” No. We say, “Which store are you going to?”
Writers need to value good grammar, but sometimes it makes sense to break the rules.
Good Grammar vs. Breaking the Rules
There are countless arguments for sticking to the rules of proper grammar, just as there countless reasons to break those rules.
Ultimately, each writer has to decide whether or not to be a stickler for good grammar. Some writers intentionally toss out the rules and develop a writing style outside of those rules. Others adhere to proper grammar strictly and evenly.
Maybe there’s a nice spot in the middle where you learn the rules and then figure out when it’s appropriate or desirable to break them.
Grammar is Good
Practicing proper grammar has its advantages:
- Adhering to strict grammar rules demonstrates superior language and writing skills.
- A thorough knowledge of grammar is a sign of intelligence in a writer.
- Accurate grammar indicates a writer who has mastered the craft.
- Following grammar rules all the time adds an interesting challenge to the writing process.
- Practicing good grammar keeps the language consistent and concise with well-defined rules.
Rules Are Made to Be Broken
If you do break the rules of grammar, it sure helps to know them first. Otherwise, your writing might come off as amateurish. If you’re planning on letting your good grammar go bad (or at least naughty), then make sure you know the difference between good grammar, lawless grammar, and plain bad grammar.
- Since spoken language rarely adheres to proper grammar, writing that relieves itself of the rules can be easier for readers to absorb.
- Dialogue that sticks to the rules of grammar often sounds unnatural.
- Taking creative license with one’s art means breaking the rules.
- Bending the rules or guidelines adds punch and style to a piece of writing; one example would be starting a sentence with a conjunction.
- Tweaking the rules can help a writer develop a personal style.
Your Thoughts on Grammar
Do you think good grammar is important for writers to master? Should we even bother with all those annoying rules? Many writers feel that we should focus on voice or story and leave grammar to proofreaders and copyeditors. Others say that understanding proper grammar is a basic writing skill.
What’s your position?
Share your thoughts on good grammar and breaking the rules of grammar in the comments.
These creative writing prompts might make you want to dance.
Some days, ideas don’t come easily.
You may find yourself staring at a blank screen or doodling in your notebook with nothing to write about.
You may find that you’d rather just listen to some music or go out dancing. Maybe you’d rather play your guitar, practice your singing, or go to a concert?
If you’re a writer and a music lover, then these creative writing prompts are perfect for you. They’ll infuse your words with musicality and make your writing rock.
Writing prompts are a great way to break through writer’s block. Try the prompts below and see for yourself!
Below, there are two sets of prompts to choose from. First you’ll find a series of word lists. Pick any of these lists and use all the words from the list you’ve chosen in a piece of writing. Or mix and match the words. The possibilities are endless.
Below the word lists, you’ll find a series of music-related creative writing prompts that are designed to spark a writing session. Some get you thinking about your own relationship with music while others give you a scene where music is a key player.
Use these prompts to write anything you want: a short story, a poem, an essay, an article, or fill a page in your journal.
More Musically Inspired Writing Prompts:
- A six-year-old girl comes home from school one day to find a piano sitting in the living room. “What’s that for?” she asks her mother. “Today, you start piano lessons,” her mom says.
- What was the first record you ever bought? Do you still like listening to it?
- After a twenty-year career as a successful, underground singer with a voice that gives audiences chills, a singer with no other skills or experience loses his or her voice.
- Have you ever played an instrument or performed music for a live audience? Ever recorded yourself singing?
- A talented and homeless twenty-something is busking in the subway. A well-to-do Julliard student passes by, then stops, turns around, and approaches the busker with the offer of a lifetime.
- Do you prefer to sing in the shower or in the car?
- After years of writing commercial jingles and cheesy, B-movie scores, a composer writes a masterful piece that propels him or her into the limelight.
- Are you one of those people who “don’t dance?” Why? Do you think everyone is watching you?
- A young, professional dancer injures her knee and can never dance professionally again. She decides if she can’t move to the music, she’ll make it. Which instrument does she choose and why?
Enjoy these creative writing prompts, rock on, and keep writing!
Did these creative writing prompts inspire you? Got any prompts or writing ideas to share? Leave a comment!
Do you need a creative writing degree?
Young and new writers often ask whether they need a creative writing degree in order to become an author or professional writer.
I’ve seen skilled and talented writers turn down opportunities or refuse to pursue their dreams because they feel their lack of a degree in creative writing means they don’t have the credibility necessary to a career in writing.
Meanwhile, plenty of writers with no education, minimal writing skills, and scant experience in reading are self-publishing, freelance writing, and offering copywriting services en masse.
It’s a question that gets asked often: do you need a creative writing degree to succeed as a writer? Is it okay to write and publish a book if you don’t have a degree or if your degree is in something other than English or the language arts?
Before I go further, I should reveal that I did earn a degree in creative writing. However, I do not think a degree is necessary. But there is a caveat to my position on this issue. While I don’t think a degree is necessary, I certainly think it’s helpful. I also think that some writers will have a hard time succeeding without structured study whereas others are self-disciplined and motivated enough to educate themselves to the extent necessary to establish a successful writing career.
Do You Need a Creative Writing Degree?
First of all, a degree is not necessary to success in many fields, including writing. There are plenty of examples of individuals who became wildly successful and made meaningful contributions without any college degree whatsoever: Bill Gates, Abraham Lincoln, and Walt Disney, to name a few.
In the world of writing, the list of successful authors who did not obtain a degree (let alone a creative writing degree) is vast. Here is a small sampling: Louisa May Alcott, Maya Angelou, Jane Austen, William Blake, Ray Bradbury, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Edgar Allen Poe, Beatrix Potter, and JD Salinger.
So you obviously do not need a creative writing degree. After all, some of the greatest writers in history didn’t have a degree. Why should you?
A Creative Writing Degree is Not a Bad Idea
On the other hand, the degree definitely won’t hurt your chances. In fact, it will improve your chances. And if you struggle with writing or self-discipline, then the process of earning a degree will be of great benefit to you.
A college education might indeed be necessary for a particular career, such as a career in law or medicine. In fields of study where a degree is not a requirement, it often prepares you for the work ahead by teaching you specific skills and techniques and by forcing you to become knowledgeable about your field.
However, there is an even greater value in the the process of earning a degree. You become knowledgeable and educated. You learn how to learn, how to work without close supervision, and you are exposed to the wisdom of your instructors as well as the enthusiasm and support of your peers. College is a great environment for development at any age or in any field.
Earning a degree is also a testament to your drive and ability to complete a goal without any kind of immediate reward or gratification. College is not easy. It’s far easier to get a full time job and buy lots of cool stuff. It’s more fun to spend your nights and weekends hanging out with your friends than staying in and studying. A college degree is, in many ways, a symbol representing your capacity to set out and accomplish a long-term goal.
If you possess strong writing skills and are somewhat autodidactic (a person who is self-taught), then you may not need a degree in creative writing. For some such people, a degree is completely unnecessary. On the other hand, if your writing is weak or if you need guidance and would appreciate the help of instructors and peers, maybe you do need a creative writing degree.
If you’re planning on going to college simply because you want to earn a degree and you hope to be a writer someday, you might as well get your degree in creative writing since that’s what you’re passionate about. On the other hand, if you hope to write biographies of famous actors and directors and you already write well, you might be better off studying film (and possibly minoring in creative writing).
You may be the kind of person who needs the validation of a degree. Maybe you are an excellent writer but you’d feel better putting your work out there if you could back it up (even in your own mind) with that piece of paper that says you have some expertise in this area. Or you might be the kind of person who is confident enough to plunge into the career of a writer without any such validation.
You might find that time and money are barriers to earning a degree. If you have responsibilities that require you to work full time and if you’re raising a family, obtaining a degree might not be in the cards, either in terms of time or money. You might be better off focusing what little free time you have on reading and writing. But there are other options if you’ve got your heart set on a creative writing degree: look for accredited online colleges, find schools that offer night and weekend classes, open yourself to the idea that you can take ten years rather than four years to complete your higher education.
Finally, some people have a desire to get a degree but they feel they are too old. I personally think that’s a bunch of hogwash. You’re never too old to learn or obtain any kind of education. When I was just out of high school, I attended a college with many students who were middle-aged and older. I had tremendous respect for them and they brought a lot of wisdom to our classes, which balanced out the youthful inexperience of my other, much younger classmates. I don’t care if you’re eighteen, forty-two, or seventy, if you have a hankering to do something, go do it!
Making Tough Decisions
Ultimately, the decision rests with each of us. Do you need a creative writing degree? Only you can answer that question.
If you’re still not sure, then check with a local school (a community college is a good place to start) and make an appointment with an adviser in the English Department. If you’re in high school, get in touch with your school’s career counselor. Sometimes, these professionals can help you evaluate your own needs to determine which is the best course of action for you. But in the end, make sure whatever decision you make about your education is one that you’ve carefully weighed and are comfortable with.
And whether you earn a degree in creative writing or not, keep writing!
Most Successful People Who Never Went to College
Practice writing to become a true master of the craft.
By now, most of you have heard of the 10,000-hour rule, which was made famous in the book Outliers. The rule states that in order to become an expert at something, you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice.
In other words, a master writer has already spent 10,000 hours writing.
Working at it for 40 hours per week, it would take 250 weeks (or almost five years) to become an expert. If you can only spend half that time, or 20 hours per week, on your craft, it would take ten years to master. For people with busy lives and responsibilities (like full-time jobs and families to care for), it could take a couple of decades to master the craft of writing.
And why shouldn’t it? After all, an expert is someone who has put in the time to become proficient. And while some writers are born with talent, which gives them an advantage (maybe they only need 8,000 hours of practice to become an expert), even the most talented among us must practice writing in order to become true wizards of word craft.
Tips to Help You Practice Writing Every Day
These days, we’re all crunched for time. You’d think technology would give us more time for leisure and personal pursuits, but it seems to have the opposite effect. The world just keeps getting busier and busier.
Finding time to practice writing might seem like an impossibility, but if you know where to look, you’ll find precious pockets of minutes and hours that you can use to your advantage.
- Write in the morning. Many accomplished writers have done their work in the wee hours before dawn. This might cut into your beauty rest, but it’s a small sacrifice to make. Get up 30-60 minutes earlier each day and use the time to practice writing.
- Write during breaks and meals. The ideal mealtime is spent eating, not nibbling your food between sentences. But if your schedule is jam packed, you might find that a couple of ten-minute breaks and a lunch hour each day add up quite nicely over the course of a year.
- Make a trade: Give up your favorite TV show, your knitting club, or weekend parties. Somewhere in your leisure time, it’s likely you’ll find something less important than writing. And when you find it, make the trade. Scale back on your hobbies and focus on your passion.
- Balance the necessities. There are things we all need to do: clean, exercise, prepare and eat meals. But if you’re spending ten hours a week cleaning the house, you can probably put up with a little extra dust and give two of those hours over to your writing practice. Make bigger meals and serve leftovers a couple nights of week. Go to the gym five days instead of seven. You’ve just carved out a few hours for your writing.
- Multi-tasking. It’s impossible for most of us to write while we’re doing other things, but we can certainly plot and plan while we’re cooking, showering, and commuting. While it’s not technically writing, planning a project is an integral step in the writing process.
- Speaking of multi-tasking, don’t forget to read. Nothing will improve your writing more quickly or thoroughly than prolific reading. And while you may not be able to ogle at a book while you’re busy with other tasks, you can certainly listen to audiobooks while you’re driving, bathing, cooking, and cleaning.
- Be a night writer. I always find my best (and most sacred) writing time late at night, just before I go to sleep. If you can stay awake an extra 30-60 minutes each night, you could get quite a bit of writing done in a week.
It’s Your Time: Use it to Practice Writing
Not every writer strives to be a master writer. Some just want to get publication credit. Others want to eke out some income. But most writers strive to produce better writing over time, and the only way to do that is to practice writing as much as possible.
I think the 10,000-hour rule is a good one, although I doubt it’s 100% accurate for all of us. Some will need to put in 12,000 hours before they can produce a masterpiece. Others may only need to invest 8,000 hours to become true experts at the craft.
And while perfection is, as always, an impossible dream, we can certainly do our best to make our writing as close to perfect as we can, each in our own time and in the way that best suits us. Well, you know the saying: practice makes perfect. So what are you waiting for? Go practice writing!
Let’s diagnose and defeat writer’s block!
Wikipedia defines writer’s block as “a condition, primarily associated with writing as a profession, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work.”
However, I have come to believe that in most cases, writer’s block is a symptom, not a condition.
Before we can cure writer’s block, we have to diagnose it.
Writer’s block is almost always presented as some mysterious disease. A writer sits down to work and nothing happens. The ideas are gone. The words don’t come. It must be writer’s block!
At times, writers certainly lose their inspiration or face challenges that prevent them from working. I’m not saying we shouldn’t call this writer’s block. What I am saying is that in my experience, there’s usually some underlying cause, and it’s often something that’s easily remedied. Instead of blaming our inability to work on a vague condition, we can figure out what’s really preventing us from writing and fix the real problem.
Today, let’s dissect writer’s block and figure out what causes it. We’ll also explore some solutions for curing writer’s block, and I’ll share some writing tips that have helped me stay inspired.
What Causes Writer’s Block?
The true causes behind writer’s block are probably infinite. Each of us requires a different set of conditions to be productive and creative. Some writers can trudge through a draft when they’re tired while others will just stare at the blank page with an even blanker look on their faces. However, there are a few common causes that we can identify:
- Physical ailments: If you’re sick, exhausted, hungry, or dealing with a headache, you might find it impossible to write. Allergies interfere with my ability to focus on anything, including writing, a few times a year. Whether you face these kinds of ailments occasionally or on a regular basis, it’s important to acknowledge the real problem and then look for a cure. That might mean taking a break so you can take care of yourself. I recently struggled with writer’s block because I had a nasty cold. I cured both my cold and writer’s block by drinking lots of hot water with lemon and honey.
- Mental and emotional stress and distractions: It’s hard to concentrate when you’re in a bad mood, stressed out, depressed, or angry. In cases of a bad mood, a little positive thinking might pull you out of it. You can also use relaxation techniques to calm your anger or alleviate your stress. It’s normal to be depressed after any kind of loss or trauma, and these times may call for taking a hiatus from your creative work. If depression persists for more than a few weeks or months, it’s important to see a doctor.
- Lazy days: Sometimes you just don’t want to write (or do much else, either). There’s a deadline looming but the sun is shining and the beach is calling. You swore you’d finish this chapter today but you’d rather take a nap. Technically, this probably shouldn’t be included on this list, because the problem isn’t that you’re blocked; you’re just feeling (or being) lazy. However, I know there are writers out there who use writer’s block as an excuse for being lazy. This is common when writers get burnt out and what they really need is either a break or a little motivation. Look for ways to get your energy levels up (eat healthy, nutritious meals and get plenty of exercise) and revisit your goals to regain your motivation.
- The grass is greener: This is a close cousin to the lazy day. It’s not that you’d rather get some rest and relaxation. You’d just rather do anything in the world other than work on your writing project. In fact, you’d rather surf the web, organize your closet, or schedule a dentist appointment. You may even be seduced by a brilliant new idea that’s tempting you away from whatever you’re supposed to be working on. The grass may look greener, but it’s not. The only cure here is sheer willpower. You can also use a reward system: get your work done and then treat yourself to something special.
- Avoidance and procrastination: Sometimes we go out of our way to avoid a difficult writing challenge. It could be that we’ve gotten our characters into a sticky situation and can’t get them out of it, or it could be a poem for which we just can’t seem to find the right rhythm. You might know, deep down inside, that you have to scrap some of your work or make heavy revisions to get yourself unstuck. Maybe you need to do some (boring or tedious) research. So you avoid it altogether. Instead of procrastinating, push yourself to face these obstacles head-on. You can also skip ahead and work on some other part of your project. If you’re truly stuck, then ask a friend to take a look and offer advice. Often, someone else can see a solution where we can’t because we’re too close to our own work.
I’m sure there are many more causes of writer’s block. I’ve experienced all of these in varying degrees. As I’ve grown more experienced, I’ve learned that whether I need to take better care of myself, push harder to get things done, or face up to an undesirable challenge, writer’s block can be cured, and usually, it can be cured easily.
A Few, Final Writing Tips for Combating Writer’s Block
- Take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise, and drink plenty of water. Schedule time for rest and relaxation. Don’t run yourself down.
- No matter what you’re working on, some other project or activity might sound more enticing. Try to see one project through before starting another and reward yourself when you push through something difficult or unpleasant.
- On the other hand, if you have two projects going, you can rotate back and forth to maintain your interest in both.
- Get advice from other writers. Often, they’ll see a solution where you see no way out.
- Sometimes, defeating writer’s block is just a matter of getting inspired. Keep a running list of ideas and things that inspire you. Whenever you feel uninspired, this list will be there for you.
How Do You Handle Writer’s Block?
Do you believe in writer’s block? Is it a real condition or a symptom of some other problem? Is it possible to become uninspired for no reason whatsoever? Do you have any writing tips that would help other writers stay inspired and unblocked? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
From 101 Creative Writing Exercises: Rock and Rhyme Poetry.
Today’s post features an exercise from my book, 101 Creative Writing Exercises, which is filled with exercises for various forms of writing, including fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. It will inspire you while imparting useful writing techniques that are fun and practical.
This exercise comes from “Chapter Eight: Free Verse.” The creative writing exercises in this chapter focus on free-form poetry writing.
I chose this exercise because it’s fun and inspiring. It asks you to use a song as a foundation for writing a poem. Many song lyrics are poems in their own right. This exercise focuses on rhyming, but it also shows you how to look at your writing’s musicality and encourages you to think about rhythm and meter in your work.
Give it a try, then come back and tell us what you learned. Feel free to share the poems or lyrics that you write from this exercise in the comments section.
Rock and Rhyme Poetry Writing Exercise
Rhyming poetry goes in and out of vogue all the time, except when it comes to children’s poetry, which is almost always packed with fun and clever rhymes.
Some poets take to rhyming rather easily, and sound-a-like words roll off their tongues like butter. Other poets struggle, dancing through the alphabet and flipping through rhyming dictionaries just to find a rhyme as simple as bat and cat.
Poems that rhyme may be a challenge for some, but they’re still fun to write and a blast to read (they are especially fun to read out loud). Rhyming is good practice for exploring musicality in language and experimenting with word play.
All you need is a song. A rhythmic and rhyme-y song without a lot of fancy runs. You’ll want a relatively simple tune. A short pop song will work well. Forget about classical music because most of it doesn’t have lyrics, and what we’re doing requires words. We’re writers, right?
Rewrite the lyrics but keep the rhythm and rhyme scheme intact. You don’t have to replace the rhyme ring and sing with a rhyme like thing and bling. But you do need to find another rhyming pair (like dance and pants). Your rhymes can be as strict or as loose as you want.
If you do just a few of these, rhyming will start to come more naturally to you, and your rhymes will flow with greater ease.
Try to rewrite the song on your own, but if you’re really struggling, hit up a rhyming dictionary or a thesaurus.
Tips: You might want to start with a short, three-chord pop song. Then, graduate yourself to longer and more complex tunes. If you know all the lyrics to your song, that will be immensely helpful. If not, do an online search to find the lyrics to the song you want to work with.
Variations: Here are a few variations that you can use for this exercise:
- Try it with nursery rhymes: Hey diddle diddle.
- Try it with a famous poem: Shakespeare anyone?
- Try it using a song without lyrics: You’re on your own!
Applications: Working with rhyme helps you think more carefully about word choice and points your focus to the sound and rhythm of a piece of writing. This is also an excellent exercise for anyone who has thought about writing song lyrics or children’s poems and stories.
I Rocked Some Poetry
Here’s my attempt with the first chorus from 80s one-hit wonder “99 Red Balloons” by Nena.
The Original Verse
You and I in a little toy shop
Buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got
Set them free at the break of dawn
Till one by one they were gone
Back at base, bugs in the software
Flash the message: something’s out there
Floating in the summer sky
Ninety-nine red balloons go by
My Attempt to Catch the Rhyme
Shoes untied at a little bus stop
Sigh and whistle a tune ’cause it’s all you’ve got
Set your feet on the tired green lawn
Tie your shoe, stretch and yawn
Five o’clock, the bus should be here
Time is precious, the deadline is near
Waiting till the bus comes by
Ninety-nine cents just for a ride
Are You Ready to Get Down?
Try it for yourself and post a verse or a chorus in the comments! If you’re looking for a song lyric resource, then check out 99 Red Balloons and 100 Other All-Time Great One-Hit Wonders, which is packed with awesome song lyrics that are ideal for this exercise.
How is your writing environment?
Please welcome guest author Ali Luke with a post on making adjustments to your physical environment to help your writing.
Do you struggle to get into writing?
Perhaps you sit down with your favorite notebook on a regular basis, but you never seem to get far.
Your kids start arguing. Or you get a backache. Or you’re distracted by that neighbor doing yet another bout of DIY. Or an urgent email pops up for your attention.
External factors aren’t the only (or the biggest) distractions that affect our writing, but they make a surprising difference in our ability to be productive.
If you’re already struggling to focus, a few distractions and irritations can easily be enough to make you give up for the day.
Here are seven key factors that influence how well – or how wrong – your writing sessions go. Which of these could you tweak today?
Factor #1: Are You Likely to be Interrupted?
If you know someone’s likely to interrupt you at any minute, it’s really hard to get into the flow of writing.
For some writers, knowing that family members or housemates are home is enough to stop them from writing.
Tips to Make it Work:
- If you can, write in a room of your own with the door closed and locked. If you don’t have a dedicated office space at home, try scheduling time to write at the library or a café.
- Write at a time of day when your house is generally quiet. For many parents, that’s first thing in the morning before the kids get up or at night after they’re in bed.
Factor #2: What Can You Hear?
Is the TV or radio on in the next room? Is someone having a loud phone conversation a few feet away from you? Are your kids bickering with one another?
While writing in complete silence isn’t always possible (and some writers hate silence anyway), intrusive noise can be a huge distraction.
Tips to Make it Work:
- Noise-cancelling headphones or music that you enjoy and can write to will make a huge difference. My usual choice is Metallica or Iron Maiden — definitely not everyone’s thing, but it works for me!
- If you find music too distracting (perhaps you always want to sing along), try a site like Noisli, which provides a range of ambient sounds. I particularly like the sounds of the forest.
Factor #3: Are You Sitting Comfortably?
A couple of days ago, I was in Starbucks for a ninety-minute writing session. I got over 3,000 words written (which is a lot more than I’d usually manage, even though I type fast). However, my neck was starting to feel sore and stiff by the time I was done.
Physical comfort matters. If you’re really into your writing, you might not notice that you’re getting stiff, or that you’re hungry or thirsty. But after a while, your body’s demands are going to break into your concentration.
Important: Don’t ignore discomfort or pain. You don’t want to cause yourself an injury that holds back your writing for months or even years.
Tips to Make it Work:
- Adjust the height of your computer screen: you want to be looking straight forward, not slightly bending your neck to look up or down.
- Try sitting on an exercise ball instead of a chair. I was super skeptical about this at first, but tried it when I was pregnant with my daughter, Kitty.
Factor #4: How Much Clutter Can You See?
This might seem like a small thing, but the amount of clutter around you can pull your attention away from your writing. It may even stop you from easily reaching your keyboard!
If clutter gives you lots of things to fiddle with, move around, or even tidy up, it’s stopping you from getting the words down. And if it makes you feel tired or frustrated, that’s also a problem.
Make it Work:
- Go somewhere else to write, even if it’s your kitchen table. This isn’t necessarily a good long-term solution, but it can help immediately.
- Tidy up your desk, but not as an excuse to avoid writing. If you write first thing in the morning, try to leave things reasonably tidy the night before.
Factor #5: What’s the Mood of Your Room Like?
Although it’s taken me a while to realize it, my environment affects my writing.
Simple things like the light level can affect how you feel. Most of the time, I’d say keep it well lit, though if you’re working on a horror or dark fantasy novel, you might want to try writing in a more gloomy atmosphere.
Make it Work
- Changing the mood of your room could be as simple as putting a few pictures or posters on the wall. Some writers like to use a vision boards as a representation of their goals.
- If you have a particular ritual that helps you write, indulge it! Make your favorite coffee or light scented candles. Do whatever it takes to lift your mood and make your environment more welcome and nurturing.
Factor #6: Are Your Tools Good Ones?
The tools you use to write (your computer or your notebook and pen) can affect how much you get done. Just imagine trying to write with a dried-up pen, where you have to keep stopping to go over too-faint words.
If your keyboard is fiddly to type on, if the software you’re using freezes or crashes, or if you’re struggling in some way against your tools, don’t put up with this: change it.
Make it Work:
- Right now, make any small changes you can. That might mean something as simple as finding a better pen or a fresh notebook.
- Plan ahead for larger (and more expensive) changes. Perhaps you’d do better with special writing software like Scrivener instead of Microsoft Word.
Factor #7: Are You Allowing Distractions In?
Finally, watch out for distractions that you’re letting into your writing environment. You may hardly be aware of them, but they can be enough to cut short a writing session.
Your phone, Skype, email, and social media accounts are all prime sources of distractions. If you’re struggling with your writing and a new email appears, it’s all too tempting to check it. And an ill-timed phone call could easily stop you from getting going at all.
Make it Work
- Turn off any potential distractions you can: email, social media, Skype, even your phone. Set a timer for 30 minutes – you can check them after that.
- If you’re still finding yourself distracted, switch off your wifi. This can be surprisingly effective.
While your internal motivation matters a lot, your physical environment can lift you up or drag you down. Find two or three changes you can make today, without spending more than ten minutes on them, and let us know in the comments how you get on.
Bio: Ali Luke’s seven-week course On Track will help you get moving again with your writing. Whether you’re working on a blog, a novel, a freelancing career, or something else entirely, On Track will give you the tools and inspiration you need. Best of all – it’s totally free, and even comes with a bonus ebook. Find out more about the course and join here.
Writing Forward turns seven years old.
When I started Writing Forward seven years ago, I had no idea what to expect. As a writer and internet junkie, a blog seemed like a smart way to pursue two of my greatest passions. I had no idea where the journey would take me.
This website has helped me build a business, become an author, learn about the artistic and business aspects of writing, and most importantly, it has connected me with the writing community. Although at times the journey has been frustrating and exhausting, it has also been enlightening and invigorating.
Writing Forward may be my website but it wouldn’t be going strong today if it weren’t for the many readers and writers who have subscribed, commented, and shared the content via social media. I’m grateful to everyone who’s been a part of this amazing journey.
Seven-Year Celebration Sale
To celebrate Writing Forward’s seventh anniversary, the Kindle and paperback versions of all my books on writing are currently on sale through the end of the week. Each title is a dollar off the regular price. To purchase a paperback from Create Space at the discounted price, use the following discount codes:
101 Creative Writing Exercises: 7ZLPPK54
10 Core Practices for Better Writing: QB68TJBF
1200 Creative Writing Prompts: EQU9H8RW
Adventures in Writing: The Complete Collection (all three titles above in a single volume): RXHRCJFS
Sale ends Friday 9/5/15 at midnight!
Leave a Review, Get a Free Book
Have you already read 101 Creative Writing Exercises? If you’ve read it and would like a free ebook of Adventures in Writing: The Complete Collection, simply leave an honest review of 101 Creative Writing Exercises at any of the sites where the book is sold or on Goodreads. Then use the contact form to send me a link to your review and let me know whether you’d like your free copy of Adventures in Writing: The Complete Collection in Kindle or epub format (or just let me know which device you’re using). This offer is open through September 10, 2014.
Thank you to all the readers and writers who have visited Writing Forward and subscribed, commented, guest posted, and shared its content throughout the years. I’ll continue working to keep Writing Forward going strong for years to come. Keep writing!
A handy little source of inspiration for writing
We writers can’t be inspired every day.
Sometimes we get burned out. Other times, we have ideas but they just don’t seem appealing at the moment when we sit down to write. Sometimes we need to take a break from a writing project and spend a little time on shorter projects, which can recharge our creativity. Other times, we’re just stuck in a writing slump.
That’s when keeping a little stockpile of writing ideas and inspiration inspiration is a good idea.
The Pocket Muse
I received my copy of The Pocket Muse as a gift a few years ago. Unfortunately, it sat on my bookshelf for far too long. But recently, I cracked it open and started perusing it. And I found it absolutely delightful.
It’s a lovely mashup of prompts, writing tips, and project starters. There are also photos to help you generate ideas. Plus, the author shares her own writing experiences, insights, and anecdotes in short essays throughout the book.
Each page contains a prompt, image, idea, quote, writing exercise, or bit of wisdom. This book is a treasure trove for writers.
One of my favorite pages offers a list of word prompts. It’s labeled as a list of verbs: racket, snug, green, spoon, boggle, and snake. The list is followed by a note pointing out that all these words are not verbs, then offers the following suggestions:
Jeremy is racketing across the lawn as we speak!
Can you hear earthworms snugging out of the ground as the sun greens the trees?
Verbs are sometimes a matter of opinion.
I just love that! If we writers don’t make language fun, who will?
Here are a few more goodies from The Pocket Muse:
- A photo of two hippos includes a caption that says it’s your job to figure out how these two hippos ended up in a school parking lot.
- “I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.” – Samuel Johnson
- And this golden bit of advice about trying to get published before you’ve mastered the craft: “Respect your apprenticeship.”
This book is packed with ideas and inspiration. But it also contains plenty of wisdom and offers practical tips. For example, there is a list of classic story elements: setup, complication, rising action, meanwhile, climax, and denouement coupled with examples from the classic tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It’s an excellent and simple example of major movements and elements that need to be present in any good piece of fiction.
The Pocket Muse is an ideal gift for any writer (including yourself). It’s a lovely little hardcover, and is great for your desk since it is both decorative and useful. When you need a break, are stuck in a rut, or just need something to pass a few minutes, this book will be a treat. You can flip through it, open it to some random page, or read through it from cover to cover. Any which way, you win!
And of course, this book will help you keep writing.
Journal prompts from 1200 Creative Writing Prompts.
Today’s journal prompts are taken from my book, 1200 Creative Writing Prompts, which is filled with inspiration for writers and includes prompts for writing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction.
The journal prompts in the book are found in the creative nonfiction section. They urge you to think about your personal experiences, beliefs, and ideas and then write about them. Some of these prompts could be used to write personal essays. They might even inspire an idea for a memoir, a personal blog, or a weekly column.
All the journal prompts are designed to spark ideas for personal writing. If you get an idea that is different from the prompt, go with it. Change the prompts, combine them, and use them in whatever way you see fit.
10 Journal Prompts from 1200 Creative Writing Prompts
- Write about someone you admire from afar—a public figure or celebrity.
- Have you ever felt like you were meant for something, that some event or moment in your life was fated? Have you ever felt an inexplicable call to do something? Where do you think this feeling comes from? Write about it.
- They say it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. Whom have you loved and lost?
- Tell the story of the first time you earned your own money.
- Sometimes, we use common sense and do the right thing or make the best choice. But sometimes, we learn lessons the hard way. Write about a time in your life when you made the wrong choice and learned a lesson the hard way.
- Many of us have experienced a terrifying moment in which we thought we were going to die. If you’ve ever experienced a moment like that, write about it.
- Think of something you wish you were good at but aren’t. Write a narrative about your attempts to do this thing and how you coped with failure.
- Write about your earliest memory. Include as much detail as you can remember.
- Write about the happiest day of your life.
- Think back to the first time you had a best friend. Tell the story of your friendship.
Did any of these journal prompts inspire you to write? Which one? Did you write in your journal, or were you inspired to write something else? Where do you get your best creative inspiration? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing!
Which of your writing ideas is leading the pack?
There are always too many writing ideas or not enough of them.
Some days, we writers are so overwhelmed with ideas, it’s impossible to get anything done. Should you work on your novel? That essay you’re writing for your favorite magazine? You have an original premise for a short story. And you feel a poem coming on.
Other days, we just can’t find any inspiration.
Prioritizing Your Writing Ideas
Prioritizing your writing ideas will help you stay focused on projects you’ve already started. Too often, we writers run around chasing one idea after another, never finishing the big projects we’ve begun. A priority list that we follow with due diligence will encourage us to finish what we’ve started. And when inspiration is fleeting, we can turn to our priority list and it will remind us that we have plenty of ideas ready and waiting to be explored.
It’s a good idea to keep track of all your ideas, and most writers are already adept at this. We jot our ideas down in our notebooks. We litter our work areas with ideas scrawled on sticky notes. We scrawl concepts on random bits of scrap paper and cocktail napkins. You probably already have a boatload of projects incubating all around you. Now, you just need to get them in order.
Keeping a master list of projects (including your works-in-progress and future project ideas) is a good way to start prioritizing. Electronic lists work well because you can move things around. Note cards are also good organizational tools because you can spread them out, color code them by form, genre, or deadline, and keep them in a box or bound them with a rubber band for easy storage and access.
How to Prioritize Your Writing Ideas
Before you prioritize your writing ideas, create a neat and manageable list using a spreadsheet, word processing document, or set of note cards. Then you can starting putting things in order.
1. Finish What You’ve Started
You’re three chapters into a novel when you come up with a breakthrough story idea for another novel. So you promptly shove your current project to the back burner and move on to the next idea. This is no way to get things done. Make a list of all your unfinished projects — the ones you fully intend on completing. Tackle those first. Add any new ideas to the bottom of the list and refrain from working on your new ideas until you’ve wrapped up the old ones.
2. Do it for Money
I’m not a big believer in making art just for the money, but we all have to eat. If you have projects that will ensure there is food on the table and a roof over your head, then get to those first. Business before pleasure, my friends.
3. Do it for Love
Nothing carries a creative project like passion. If you have tons of writing ideas and aren’t sure which one to focus on first, follow your heart. If you’ve finished your other projects and are eating well, then do what you love.
4. Little Things Come First
When you have a huge list, it can help to work through the little projects first — the ones that will only take a few hours or a couple of days. This is a great way to shorten your project list and get a lot done in a short amount of time. But take care — little projects have a way of popping up all over the place. Make sure you don’t let small projects keep piling up in front of your bigger projects.
5. Even Distribution
If you have big projects, little projects, ongoing projects, and one-time projects, short-term and long-term projects, try prioritizing one of each. In other words, write a poem, then a short story, then an essay, then start that novel, then go back to your poetry. You can go around and around. You’ll chip away at everything a little more slowly, but you’ll be well rounded for your efforts.
How Many Writing Ideas Are You Juggling?
Do you have more writing ideas than you know what to do with? Are you short on time or not sure what to tackle first? Try organizing your projects into a list and then prioritize them using these five methods for putting your projects in order. Keep adding all your new writing ideas to your list, but more importantly, keep writing.