To plan or not to plan

By nature a planner, I’m the queen of bulleted checklists. I love calendars and spend a lot of time filling them out.

In many ways, planning can be helpful. Scheduling my time—deciding what writing project to focus on next and when and where I’m going to work on it—means when I sit down to write I’m ready and know what to do. I jump right in.

Planning also reduces stress because after I assign each project a spot on my calendar, I don’t need to think about it, although I might. There are lots of useful, healthy reasons to plan. But it can also hold you back, pen you in and prevent you from reaching out. Which is why spontaneity also has its place, along with throwing caution to the wind and being less rigid.

So every once in a while I turn on my computer and open a random file. I did just that recently and came across a draft of the blog you’re reading right now.

Think Small to Reach Big Writing Goals

Think Small to Reach Big Writing Goals

How the Stepping Stone System Can Get You Where You Want to Go

Someday, you tell yourself, I’m going to write that novel, finish that screenplay and complete that essay. Of course you are. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Oh, that’s right. There are non-writers in the world.

But we’re not talking about them. We’re talking about us. We’re writers who want to die happy. We want to complete our writing goals before we kick the literary bucket. We want our tombstone to read “Novelist—Screenplay Writer—Essayist Who Died in Peace at Her Desk.”

Whatever your writing goals are — maybe poems or short stories are your shtick — achieving them requires one thing: completing a string of small, specific tasks.

Yes, it’s time to think small and specific, not big and vague. That doesn’t meant there’s anything wrong with having big writing goals. In fact, knowing what you want to write is important (and not necessarily easy to determine), but it isn’t enough. After deciding what you want to accomplish, you have to make it happen.

Hoping it will happen or talking about it happening or complaining about it not happening aren’t going to cut it. You have to have a plan—a plan that includes a series of small, specific tasks.

Experienced writers know how to convert a big goal — such as writing a memoir — into a series of tasks that can be completed in one sitting. One day the memoirist might research the history of her hometown. Another day she might draft that anecdote about the day her brother brought home a mouse.

Each day writers need look no further than that. It’s like walking across a stream one stepping stone at a time. To arrive safely on the other bank, the walker need only keep his eyes focused on the rock ahead. True, some rocks may be slippery (how am I going to show the character’s meanness?), or even dangerous (how much should I reveal about myself?). But who said writing is easy or safe?

Say you want to write a novel. What might a small, specific task look like?

What it wouldn’t look like is this: Write Chapter One. That task is too big and vague.

Instead, a more helpful task would be: Draft the opening scene of Chapter One.

If you’re working on an essay, a small, specific task might be: Make sure verb tenses are consistent. Or Find and remove passive voice.

Confession time. I need to be honest. After completing one self-assigned task, you may end up completing additional tasks that same day. But giving yourself one small, specific task serves two purposes: (1) It keeps you focused so you’re not overwhelmed by your project, and (2) because the task is doable, you’ll approach your writing feeling relaxed, which will improve the quality of your output. Tense writers produce tense copy. Now forget what you just read and continue to assign yourself individual, small tasks.

As you may have guessed, I’m not a big fan of binge writing (think National Novel Writing Month), although that approach might work for some writers. A putzer and chipper by nature, I find that binge writing smacks of trendy diets and New Year’s goals that never pan out. In my experience, it’s more helpful to find a way to write a little bit all the time. Be a tortoise. Be a putzer. Chip away at your writing projects. If you do, before you know it, you’ll have arrived.

More examples of specific writing tasks:

  • Find a strong opening scene.
  • Draft the main character’s backstory.
  • Finalize the ending.
  • Re-read what you wrote yesterday.
  • Use a pen to mark up a print-out of your story.
  • Enter handwritten edits into computer.
  • Research markets.

To increase the chances that the stepping stone system will work for you, consider these additional tips:

Don’t talk. If you’ve just started a new writing project, keep it to yourself. Don’t talk about it except in a class in which the instructor facilitates any feedback. Why keep a new project to yourself? Because in its early stages it’s like an egg, an embryo. It’s vulnerable, susceptible and easily affected. The tiniest little comment can stop it cold or throw it off course. Until it’s more mature and can defend itself, it needs the protection of privacy. Only later, when the writer is sure she knows what the project is about will it be ready to face the world.

Check in with yourself. Each day, take a few minutes to ask yourself “Am I on track with my writing? What specific task do I need to complete today to move toward my goal?”

Focus on what you can control. You may not have control over whether your poem gets published but you do have control over whether you complete that day’s task.

Use passwords as reminders/mantras. We all have to come up with multiple computer passwords. So annoying. Unless you use them to remind yourself of your literary goals. Some examples: TitleofYourNovel342277, Essayist!*457.

Expect the worst. I don’t expect the world to move out of the way so I can write uninterrupted. I realize stuff happens. Good stuff and bad stuff. We’re not isolated machines. We’re real people living real lives. One day the cat throws up on the rug, requiring a trip to the vet. Another day a spouse wants to have “a talk.” Or an out-of-town relative shows up unannounced at the front door. Some days it may seem as if life is a sinister novel plotted to prevent you from writing.

The solution isn’t to move to a desert island. The solution is to bounce back. Be resilient. Laugh. Cry. Fail up. (To “fail up” means to try and fail, over and over again, until you get what you want.)

Lighten up: Figure out what you enjoy about writing and use it to your advantage. If you like to write in noisy coffee shops, go for it. If you like to write alone in your car or late at night when the rest of the household is asleep, do that.

Remember that writing matters. Don’t forget that writers have value. They add to society and culture. Don’t hide your gift. Bring it out. You’ll benefit from doing so and so will the rest of the world.

Own it. Whatever you write, stand firm. Readers don’t want hesitant. They don’t buy confused. They’re attracted to writers who convey a sense of calm confidence without being obnoxious. In short, be yourself.

Write first thing in the morning. If time goes by and you’re not completing your writing tasks, try doing them first thing in the morning before the rest of the world presses in.

Reward yourself. Creating a new habit is hardest at the beginning, so reward yourself for each completed task. Choose healthy, affordable rewards: a special cup of coffee, an issue of a favorite magazine, or a walk through a park with a friend.

Writing strong leads: How to hook the reader

Writing strong leads: How to hook the reader(What follows is an excerpt from material presented in the Journalism for Freelance Writers class.)

Do you read every article in a newspaper or magazine you happen to pick up? Probably not. If you’re like most readers, you focus on the articles that hook you and pull you in.

In journalism, the term “lead” refers to the opening of an article. Also called the “hook,” or “grabber,” the lead is in many ways the most important part of an article. It also can be the most difficult to write because it requires the reporter to summarize the content of the article in a way that conveys its tone while enticing the reader.

Leads come in various types, including anecdotal leads, which include a story to illustrate a point, and delayed-suspense leads, which withhold information until later. Whatever the type, effective leads have three traits in common: brevity, clarity and relevancy.

Finding the lead can be the most difficult and time-consuming aspect of writing an article but once nailed down it makes writing the article simpler. In that sense, the lead functions like an outline. Once you determine the opening, the article falls into place.

Journalism for Freelance Writers

Dates: Saturdays, Sept. 27-Dec. 6, 2014. No class Nov. 29.

Time: 2-4 p.m.

Cost: $200/10 weeks

Limited to 5 students

Location: Hollywood district of Northeast Portland, Oregon. Exact location provided upon registration.

Learn the skills professional reporters use to write features, human-interest articles and small-business profiles. Become the freelance writer every editor wants to work with. Learn the dos and don’ts of the publishing world. By the end of the class you’ll have completed one feature article that is 650-800 words in length. Along the way, you’ll learn how to:

  • Find article ideas
  • Carry out research
  • Prepare for and conduct interviews
  • Write leads
  • Organize, draft, revise and polish articles
  • Handle quotes and attributions
  • Meet deadlines and word counts
  • Copyedit and fact check
  • Write headlines, captions and photo credits
  • Apply AP and Chicago style
  • Take photos
  • Work with editors
  • Follow journalist ethics and values
  • Fulfill journalistic responsibilities

To register: Mail payment to Nancy Woods, P.O. Box 18032, Portland, OR 97218. To pay by credit card call (503) 288-2469.For more information: or (503) 288-2469.

83 excuses for not writing

83 excuses for not writing

By Daphne Gray-Grant

Many of our excuses for not writing might sound convincing, if we don’t think about them too much. But when it comes right down to it, the only person we’re hurting is ourselves. Check out this list and see if any of these excuses for not writing are ones you’ve ever used.

  1. I’m too tired.
  2. My back hurts.
  3. I have to have the extended family over for dinner.
  4. My kids need help with their homework.
  5. I have tickets to a concert/play tonight.
  6. My fulltime job keeps me too busy.
  7. My boss needs a big report done by Friday.
  8. My volunteer job takes up too much time.
  9. I’m too hungry.
  10. No one helps me with the housework.
  11. I have to look after a sick family member.
  12. I keep getting interrupted by other people.
  13. It’s too noisy.
  14. My mind goes blank whenever I sit in front of the computer.
  15. I have too many social engagements.
  16. I don’t know what to write about.
  17. I don’t have enough big blocks of time for writing.
  18. I need to call my mom back.
  19. I don’t feel like writing.
  20. I haven’t checked Facebook in the last 30 minutes.
  21. I’m expecting an important email and I need to know if it’s arrived.
  22. I haven’t finished the research yet.
  23. My computer is frozen.
  24. I had too much to drink last night.
  25. My phone rings too often.
  26. I can’t concentrate.
  27. I have allergies.
  28. My desk is messy.
  29. I had to take in the drycleaning.
  30. Who am I to write about this?
  31. I kept meaning to do it but other things kept getting in the way.
  32. I’m too busy looking for an agent.
  33. I’m trying to find the writer’s guidelines.
  34. My eyes hurt.
  35. My grammar is bad.
  36. No one cares what I think.
  37. I’m too busy reading books about writing.
  38. I’m afraid that what I write won’t be any good.
  39. I have the flu.
  40. I had a bad sleep last night.
  41. My car broke down.
  42. My boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse and I had a fight.
  43. I have to take my cat/dog to the vet.
  44. I’m looking for my lunch receipt otherwise I won’t get reimbursed.
  45. My income tax is late and I have to finish it.
  46. The playoffs for my favourite team are on TV today and I NEED to watch them.
  47. My writing will never get published anyway, so what does it matter?
  48. It’s too cold.
  49. It’s too hot.
  50. I have other work to do.
  51. I need to finish this computer game, first.
  52. It’s my birthday.
  53. I don’t know enough about this subject.
  54. I’m too stressed.
  55. I have to clean the house.
  56. I have to clean the garage.
  57. All the good ideas have been taken.
  58. It’s too late to write.
  59. I have plenty of time to write; I can do it later.
  60. I need more time to relax.
  61. I can’t write under pressure.
  62. I can’t write without a deadline.
  63. I haven’t been inspired yet.
  64. There’s a plumber/electrician in the house and I need to be ready to talk to him.
  65. I’m too depressed.
  66. I need to post some more tweets.
  67. I don’t have enough coffee.
  68. No one will understand me.
  69. I need to print out new auto insurance cards.
  70. My parents didn’t encourage me to be creative enough when I was young.
  71. It takes too long to learn how to write well.
  72. I don’t like criticism.
  73. I don’t have anything to say.
  74. My chair is uncomfortable.
  75. Most writers get their work rejected by publishers anyway.
  76. I’ll do it when I have more time.
  77. So many writers are depressed!
  78. The vast majority of writers are poor and only get rejection letters.
  79. I don’t like competition.
  80. I’m shy. I don’t want people to know what I’m really thinking.
  81. I don’t like being criticized.
  82. I like editing but I HATE writing the first draft.
  83. I like writing a first draft but I don’t want to get started because I HATE editing.

Have you ever used any of these excuses? If so, the very best time to write is first thing in the morning, as soon as you wake up. Why?

  • Your brain won’t be awake enough to feel fear or process excuses.
  • You won’t be disturbed by phone calls and the demands of others.
  • You’ll start your day by achieving something meaningful, which will make the rest of your day better.
  • You’ll be building a habit, which is far more sustainable and much stronger than willpower.

What are your very best excuses for not writing? How do you get around them? We can all learn from each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me by commenting below. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)

The Death of Letter-Writing

The Death of Letter-Writing

The New York Times
In recent years, a number of journalists and critics have lamented the death of the literary letter. The publication of Saul Bellow’s letters in 2010 and William Styron’s last year were accompanied by waves of speculation about how many more such collections we can expect. There was also no small amount of hand-wringing about how “The Collected Emails of Dave Eggers” (or whomever) will never cast quite the same spell.

These are legitimate concerns. But a less remarked upon and equally worrisome question is what the death of letter writing — and its replacement by emailing — is doing to the process of creative writing itself. Before the advent of email, many writers maintained a healthy relationship with their correspondence; they found letter writing to be a useful complement to their main literary projects. Letters were not only a way to stay in touch with colleagues or test out ideas and themes on the page, but also a valuable method of easing into and out of a state of mind where they could pursue more daunting and in-depth writing.

John Updike, for instance, often began his writing day by answering a letter or two. Cynthia Ozick has said that she does the same thing, answering letters after breakfast, before beginning her real work. Ernest Hemingway, by contrast, turned to his letters when his fiction wasn’t going well; they were a welcome break from what he called the “awful responsibility of writing.” Iris Murdoch worked on her fiction in the morning, wrote letters in the afternoon and then returned to her fiction for a couple hours in the early evening. Thomas Mann’s days followed much the same pattern: serious writing in the morning, then letters, reviews and newspaper articles in the evening.

For these writers, and many more like them, keeping up with their correspondence was a valuable para-literary activity — not quite “real” writing, but something that helped them warm up for or cool down from the task. (And, of course, it should go without saying that many of these letters were beautiful works of literature in their own right.)

This is not to say that all writers found dealing with their correspondence pleasant. H. L. Mencken replied to every letter he received on the same day that it arrived — out of politeness, he said, and also for more selfish reasons. “I answer letters promptly as a matter of self-defense,” Mencken once explained. “My mail is so large that if I let it accumulate for even a few days, it would swamp me.”

Charles Darwin was similarly compulsive. He made a point of replying to every letter he received, even those from obvious cranks. If he failed to do so, it weighed on his conscience and could even keep him up at night.

Is email really such a different beast? I would argue that it is. I recently compiled a book about artists’ daily rituals, and as part of my research I spoke to several contemporary writers, painters and composers about their working habits. Nearly everyone was wary of the distractive potential of email. The novelist Nicholson Baker, for instance, told me that he tries to avoid checking email too early in the day because “it just does change everything. As soon as you have a couple of emails pending, the day has a different flavor.”

In a 2010 interview with The Paris Review, the novelist David Mitchell voiced a similar sentiment. He talked of “hearing the blip blip blip of emails arriving in your inbox, and knowing that at some point you’re going to have to sit down and sift through them, but not today, damn it, not tonight, please, not until I’ve just finished this one last scene.”

It is this constant background awareness of email that can cause real problems. Unlike traditional mail, email is always active. You can’t fire off an email and then put it completely out of mind; there is at least some slight awareness of the message’s continuing life, the possibility of a reply, the need to keep refreshing the stream of digital correspondence. And that’s the best-case scenario — more often, it is the nagging collection of unanswered emails that weighs on one’s mind.

So can contemporary writers — and nonwriters who are overwhelmed by email, i.e., pretty much everyone I know — take away any lessons from our literary ancestors’ less fraught relationship with correspondence? One possible tactic is to set aside a portion of each day for email and deal with it only at that time — to process email in batches, treating it like a daily delivery from the postman rather than a constant slow drip of communication.

I realize that this is not an entirely original suggestion, nor one that is likely to work for most people. An alternative is to adopt a habit that I have noticed in several especially busy editors and journalists, and it is simply this: Spend as little time as possible reading and replying to emails, and dash them off with as much haste, and as little care to spelling and punctuation, as you can bear. In other words, don’t think of them as letters at all — think of them as telegrams, and remember that you are paying for every word.

Mason Currey is the author of “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.”

The writing life: Living in two worlds

From Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times:

“There is never enough time for writing; it is a parallel universe where the days, inconveniently, are also twenty-four hours long. Every moment spent in one’s real life is a moment missed in one’s writing life, and vice versa. — “Begs It Back” by Gish Jen

Writing tip: Writing in privacy

I’m reading Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process by Peter Elbow. Published in 1981, the book offers suggestions that remain helpful to this day, such as this passage about writing without an audience in mind:

“…Students often come to feel a need to withdraw from writing for an audience…they sometimes don’t want to share their writing with anyone — not even with me….they need privacy for experimenting….”

Do you set aside time to write in privacy? If so, what were the results? If you haven’t tried writing in privacy, you might want to give it a try.

Advice from Ira Glass

Click here to read about the importance of practicing your craft (or read below).

Writing Inspiration: Advice from Ira Glass

How can we make our work live up to our ambitions? As writers, we set the bar high. It may seem that our best writing is always just out of reach. We’re debilitated by writer’s block, plagued by self-doubt, crushed by criticism from others. There’s a lot standing in the way between the story sketch in our heads and the polished, final draft we know we’ve got inside us.

Yet we push onward.

What distinguishes successful writers from the rest is persistence, according to Ira Glass. The Host and Executive Producer of This American Life believes that to go from good to great work, you simply have to do a lot of it. That feeling of inadequacy that gnaws at you after completing a first draft– it’s normal. It’s part of your growth process as a writer, and it proves you have something Glass likes to call “taste.” In other words, you have high standards for the work you produce, and you’re unwilling to settle for less. Hold onto that feeling, and let it drive you to create more.

Glass himself began a career in public radio as a 19 year-old, and over the course of 17 years worked on nearly every NPR news show and on all kind of production jobs. He’s been a tape-cutter, desk assistant, newscast writer, editor, producer, reporter, and substitute host. All that led him to launch This American Life in 1995. Today’s it’s broadcast on 500 public radio stations across the country, with about 1.7 million listeners.

Here’s what Glass wishes he knew at the start of it all:

Ira Glass


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