Reading time: About six minutes
Every month I scour the internet malls pawing through more than 100 blogs and magazines with advice on writing. And each time I select 10 of the most beautiful, useful articles and wrap them up in recyclable but sparkly paper just for you. Here’s your latest top 10:
In a post for Standout Books Publishing Services, blogger Rebecca Langley presents motivational speaker Mel Robbins’s “5-second rule.” It’s deceptively simple: when you have to do something you really don’t want to do, stop thinking about it. Instead, start counting backwards from five: five, four, three, two, one. Then, when you hit one, do the task. (I tried this technique myself this week, and it works!) Why is it so effective? Langley writes: “There are a number of scientific reasons … first, counting backward works in the opposite direction to what your brain is used to doing, so it triggers an unfamiliar response – jarring you out of the habit loop. Counting backward also means that when you reach zero, it’s blast-off time. If you count up to five, you can keep counting until you’ve loaded another episode of The Good Place and it’s all over from there. Further, the short countdown doesn’t leave you any time to start feeling your way out of taking action.” The next time you find yourself procrastinating over writing, give this counting trick a try.
I’ve always seen my job as having a relatively low impact on the environment: I work from home so no gas-guzzling car; I turn off the lights whenever I leave my office; I always write on both sides of a piece of paper and recycle it after that; I stick with my old-cellphone (an elderly iPhone 6S) even though it’s rapidly-draining battery drives me mad! But I was thrilled to read that writer K.M Weiland had some even more detailed and thoughtful suggestions for how writers can go easier on the environment. Her list of 23 tips includes everything from using paper tape (I didn’t even know such a thing existed!) to getting recycled pencils. She also offers some “bigger picture” suggestions such as buying “second-hand” and using devices such as computers and cellphones for as long as possible Some of her ideas you might want to adopt yourself; others would make great stocking stuffers for the writers in your family or, really, for anyone who is contributing to global warming (ie: all of us.)
We are all different but did you know that most people achieve peak performance under moderately noisy conditions. (Was mom always wrong when she said, ‘don’t listen to music while doing your homework’?) For the scientifically inclined the optimum level of noise is 70 decibels, which is a little louder than a normal conversation and a little quieter than loud music. I loved the details on this phenomenon that architect Donald Rattner provided recently in Jane Friedman’s blog. As he puts it, “absolute noiselessness tends to focus our attention, which is helpful for tasks that entail accuracy, fine detail, and linear reasoning, such as balancing our checkbook or fixing a Swiss watch. It’s less supportive of the broad, big-picture, abstract mind-wandering that leads to fresh perspectives and a creative work product.” He suggests getting an app, hack or sound generator to create enough noise that’s just right for you. Or going to a coffee shop to write.
As a die-hard introvert myself, I was impressed and intrigued when Guardian writer Sirin Kale — also an introvert — agreed to an extra-challenging smackdown from her editor. Her assignment? To spend a week saying ‘yes’ to every social engagement that came her way. My worst nightmare! Kale charts her activity day by day, saying yes to activities like playing dodgeball with strangers and participating in Waltham Forest’s volunteer gardening group. Her conclusions? Although she remains an introvert, she believes…”That people are kinder than you think and it is often easier to be truthful with strangers. That you should open yourself up to new experiences because the worst that can happen is getting hit in the face with a dodgeball, and that is not so bad. That we are all of us individual moving dots, part of the same involuntary palpitating life, crisscrossing as we walk the streets. It’s nice for the dots to collide sometimes, even for a little while.” Maybe her heartfelt essay will get me out of the house on more evenings.
Is there a writer alive who hasn’t struggled with the direction to show not tell when they write? How the heck do you do that? Fortunately, Amanda Patterson, on the Writer’s Write website offers some detailed and useful advice about how to use body language in writing. She even provides two terrific cheat sheets on how to do it. For example, defensive people cross their arms or legs, hold their arms out with palms forward, place items in front of their bodies and shove their hands in their pockets. People who are happy, on the other hand, smile, laugh, hum a tune, crinkle their eyes and noses, swing their arms, dance, jump, hug and giggle. Adding body language to your writing is useful for a number of reasons. It adds more depth to your dialogue. It makes your writing more realistic because more than half of all human communication is non-verbal. It demonstrates how your character’s emotions affect his or her actions. And, finally, it allows you to show rather than tell. If you’re a fiction writer, be sure to download these cheat sheets.
There’s something compelling about the idea of entering a contest. Particularly when the prize is £30,000 ($38,700 US) for a single short story. The Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award bills itself as “the richest prize for a single short story in the English language.” But, yes, there is a problem and it’s contained in the small print. Under the contest’s terms and conditions page, according to the very fine website Writer Beware, “simply by entering the competition, you are granting a sweeping, non-expiring license not just to Times Newspapers Limited (The Sunday Times‘ parent company), but also to Audible and any other licensees of TNL, to use the story or any part of it in any way they want, anywhere in the world, without payment to or permission from you.” I was once asked by a trade magazine to sign a clause like that, for an article I’d written for them at no charge. I spoke with a friend who is a lawyer and writer and she strongly advised me to turn them down. So I did. (And not only did I retain the copyright, but they ran the story anyway, which is what I wanted.) There is no good reason that simply entering a contest should force you to forfeit your rights.
Writer John Seabrook, who admits to having difficulty with spelling, contributes a delightful and informative piece to The New Yorker, exploring how predictive text is likely to change our writing. If you use Gmail, you may have noticed what’s called “Smart Compose.” This is where the computer attempts to guess the next word(s) you’re going to write and, if the machine guesses correctly, you can accept the text by hitting the tab button. I’ve used this tool from time to time and found it mildly helpful although not game-changing. Still, it’s clear that Artificial Intelligence is going to continue to try to improve our writing. As Seabrook puts it: “Scientists have varying ideas about how we acquire spoken language. Many favor an evolutionary, biological basis for our verbal skills over the view that we are tabulae rasae, but all agree that we learn language largely from listening. Writing is certainly a learned skill, not an instinct—if anything, as years of professional experience have taught me, the instinct is to scan Twitter, vacuum, complete the Times crossword, or do practically anything else to avoid having to write.” Tools that I often favour, such as ProWritingAid, Count Wordsworth and Online-Utility all help make writing (or, more accurately) editing easier. But what are the implications for our long-term future as writers and readers? Check out Seabrook’s article to learn more.
Getting those first words on the page is a challenge for many writers. But do those first words you write need to be the first words in your book, dissertation or report? No!! This tip is one of the 10 useful do-and-don’t suggestions that Anne R. Allen presents in a recent blog post. I’ve long counselled my clients to write their beginnings and endings last. If you view these segments of your writing as introductions and summaries then it may become more obvious to you why you should leave them until the end. Other suggestions Allen offers include not starting with dialogue, not opening with a death, and not starting with crowd or battle scenes. I’d describe much of this advice as good common sense. But here’s the thing about such sense: it’s not all that common!
Many people fear public speaking. (I recently learned that Warren Buffet started life that way.) This type of fear will lead to jam-packed Toastmaster’s groups and sold-out Dale Carnegie courses in January. Briar Goldberg, the director of speaking coaching at TED, however has one easy-to-remember tip from a mentor: ABC. That acronym stands for Audience Before Content. And the concept is much deeper than figuring out demographics. According to Goldberg, it means really understanding their goals. For example,
- “Why are these people taking time out of their busy schedules to listen?”
- “What do they hope (or need) to gain from this presentation?”
- “What are their expectations coming in?”
Then, once you’ve figured out their goals, you need to gauge how they make their decisions. Again, Goldberg offers some useful advice. All audiences can be broken down into one of three groups: expert, novice and mixed. Here’s how to appeal to each one:
- Experts: Use logical and quantitative arguments
- Novice: Emphasize your own credibility
- Mixed: Appeal to emotions
For more information on Goldberg’s interesting advice, check out the TED link, above.
If you want to become an expert on something (say, writing) consider the benefits of acting as though you don’t know anything. Author and blogger Austen Kleon explores this fascinating concept in a blog post in which he quotes the poet Wislawa Szymborska in her 1996 Nobel Prize lecture:
“If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job.” As Szymborska and Kleon argue, the benefit of saying ‘I Don’t Know’ is that it forces you to continue working until you discover something interesting or useful or creative….
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is going to be developing a better writing routine, consider applying to my Get It Done program. I’ll be holding a no-charge intro webinar on Dec. 12 and all you need to do is email me to hold a spot. If you already know you want to apply, go here, scroll to the very end and select the bright green “click here to apply now” button.
My video podcast last week described how to emulate other writers. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
What’s your favourite blog to read? We can all learn from each other so, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Mat Loup, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a Nov. 26/19 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Dec. 31/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!