Reading time: About 7 minutes
In the season after Christmas, when life seems flat and winter feels cold, dark and endless, I like to settle in by the fire and wrap my fingers around a steaming cup of fine reading. Here are my 10 favourite articles or posts from last month, culled from more than an entire teashop of blogs and magazines with advice on writing:
Master blogger Darren Rowse — of ProBlogger fame — addresses this question with a smart five-step process:
- Look for what others aren’t saying
- Turn your idea on its head
- Come up with an unusual angle
- Make your post more valuable (by going deeper, making it longer or formatting it better)
- Narrow your focus
As Rowse describes his strategy, “Your ideas might not be original, especially if you’re blogging in a large and crowded niche. But your approach to those ideas, and the way you cover them, certainly will be.
Hank Green may be primarily a videographer and a musician, but he and his brother John are two of the smartest writers I’ve ever read. Get yourself familiar with their work! My kids, when they were teens, fell in love with the Greens’ video channel, called Vlog Brothers. (And I was immediately smitten by John’s books, most especially, The Fault in our Stars, a sophisticated and non-sentimental book about two teens with cancer.)
Writing blogger Ann Handley likes Hank, too, and she devoted a recent post to him, summarizing findings from a video of his. Here are the six key takeaways:
- You have to care about whatever you’re writing about
- Schedules don’t matter, but momentum does
- The most important part of writing is often not writing
- Flow don’t fix
- Write what you’re excited about right now
- Writing is writing is writing
The point that resonates most strongly with me is #3. I wholeheartedly agree with Hank when he says, “Not all writing is writing… it’s thinking, staring, researching, stressing, reading other people’s books, reading your own book again, reading stuff that you’ve already written.”
I work with hundreds of writing clients every year and writing too soon is a challenge that many of them face. Your writing will always go better if you give yourself enough time to think, plan and mindmap before you write a single word.
I’m a big fan of radio — including both NPR in the US and the CBC in Canada — but somehow, I had never heard of Tiny Desk Concerts. The series has been around since 2008 when musician and radio host Bob Boilen and NPR music editor Stephen Thompson left a bar show frustrated that they couldn’t hear the music over the hubbub of the crowd. Thompson joked that the musician should have just performed at Boilen’s desk.
A month later, Boilen not only arranged for the musician to do that, he also made a recording and posted it online. I can’t find any recent stats but by August 2018, the series had posted more than 800 concerts and they had been viewed more than two billion times. The favoured genre is described as “hipster-infused indie rock,” but I tend to prefer the folk or world music ones. I particularly enjoyed a concert by the charming Raveena Aurora. And if you’re looking for a really big name, check out this one by Sheryl Crow or this one by Taylor Swift.
I learned about the series thanks to prolific blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig. Thrilled that I finally had a leg up on my musician son, I emailed Duncan with my discovery. Of course, he was already a follower…
I need more sunshine than I usually get in a deeply grey city like Vancouver. (To deal with my need, I use a Verilux happy light.)
That said, I am easily moved by the beauty of clouds. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m prepared to “fight blue-sky thinking,” but I do agree that clouds are not a sign of negativity and gloom. Instead, they might be better described as “nature’s poetry” and the “most egalitarian of her displays.”
If these concepts interest you, take five-minutes to learn about the Cloud Appreciation Society, founded in 2005 by Gavin Pretor-Pinney and have a look at the achingly beautiful cloud pictures in a recent New York Times story by Josephine Sedgwick. My favourite photo in this breathtakingly beautiful collection is the one of so-called Mamma clouds over Mount Rushmore. (Mamma is short for Mammatus or mammatocumulus clouds referring to a cellular pattern of pouches hanging underneath the base of a cloud. They are remarkable!)
I am no longer addicted to my phone. Woo hoo! Mind you, I wasn’t a particularly tough case. I don’t do Facebook at all (although I do have an account for those occasions when I need to reach younger friends who refuse to use email.) I tweet in batches via my desktop, never my phone. And I’ve always enforced a family rule of no phones at the dinner table.
But after reading Ann Gomez’s inspirational column about putting her cellphone on a diet, I started to pay more attention to my own weaknesses. I used to check email via my phone far too often, and I read way too much of the New York Times on it. When I saw that Ann was committing to parking her phone at the charging station between 6 pm and 6 am, I decided to get serious about limiting my phone use.
Now I don’t check email on my phone unless I’m away from my office for several hours and I’m expecting something important from a client. I’m still reading the New York Times, but not as obsessively as before, and only at home. Finally, when I’m walking outside, I’m also spending far less time listening to podcasts, and more time allowing my mind to wander. As a result, I’m feeling much more relaxed.
All writers are creative people. And what do creative people need? Beauty. Provocation. Laughter. Challenge. Or, as writer Ted Gioia puts it in this useful blog post:
“I could not do what I do if I was not zealous in managing high-quality inputs into my mind every day of my life. That’s why I spend maybe two hours a day writing. I’m a writer. I spend two hours a day writing, but I spend three to four hours a day reading and two to three hours a day listening to music.
“People think that that’s creating a problem in my schedule, but in fact, I say, “No, no, this is the reason why I’m able to do this. Because I have constant good-quality input.” That is the only reason why I can maintain the output.”
Gioia, an American jazz critic and music historian, is being quoted in the blog of author and artist Austen Kleon who several years ago expressed his own views about input. I followed the breadcrumb trail back to his earlier post and was rewarded with this charming paragraph:
“When I stall out, it’s time to start taking things in again: read more, re-read, watch movies, listen to music, go to art museums, travel, take people to lunch, etc. Just being open and alert and on the lookout for That Thing that will get me going again.”
I love the hard-slogging work of the website Writer Beware, a website that aims to shine a bright light into the dark corners of literary scams, schemes and pitfalls. A recent post addresses one of my pet peeves: predatory companies that want to sell you their services to help you with your own self-publishing.
Self-publishing has worked well for me, but it doesn’t work for everyone and people who pretend it does — or that all traditional publishers are bad — are usually out to line their own pockets.
As Writer Beware says, “if you use the internet as part of your publisher search, you’re very likely to encounter [dishonest and distorted sales pitches] (in some cases, disseminated by self-styled experts who ought to know better).
“It’s a great argument for a step that many writers skip: learning about publishing before diving into the quest for publication. As with all aspects of publishing, knowledge is your greatest ally and your best defense: the more you know about the way things really work, the better protected you will be against…disinformation.”
A recent TED talk by social science researcher B.J. Fogg — the founder and director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University — addresses the huge value of tiny habits. With the writers in my Get It Done group, I’m constantly harping on the importance of having a reliable writing habit — even if it’s as short as five minutes.
But Fogg takes the premise one step further when he emphasizes the need to celebrate your achievement, however small it may be. Here is how he puts it:
“When I teach people about human behavior, I boil it down to three words: Emotions create habits. Not repetition. Not frequency. Not fairy dust. Emotions. When you are designing for habit formation — for yourself or for someone else — you are really designing for emotions.
“Celebration is the best way to use emotions and create a positive feeling that wires in new habits. It’s free, fast, and available to people of every color, shape, size, income and personality. In addition, celebration teaches us how to be nice to ourselves — a skill that pays out the biggest dividends of all.
“Celebration is habit fertilizer. Each individual celebration strengthens the roots of a specific habit, but the accumulation of celebrations over time is what fertilizes the entire habit garden. By cultivating feelings of success and confidence, we make the soil more inviting and nourishing for all the other habit seeds we want to plant.”
If you want to establish your own writing habit, watch this video. Then set a really small goal and celebrate your ability to achieve it.
Speaking of tiny habits, consider whether super-small breaks could also help improve your writing goals. Psychologist and performance coach Obehi Alofoje writes about the value of rest, in a recent post for Psychology Today. Here are the signs Alofoje cites showing that you need a break:
- You become forgetful
- You struggle to concentrate on a single piece of work
- You can’t take in any more information
- You become easily distracted
- Everything takes longer than you think it should
When you’re in a situation like that, you might want to go for a walk or grab a cup of coffee. Bud did you know that even a micro-break of one to nine minutes might be enough to help reset your attention? Don’t believe that ‘powering through’ is the only way to deal with exhaustion. Sometimes even a very small break can help you.
Regrettably, my blurb on Seth Godin’s recent blog is going to be longer than his 49-word post. A master of economy, Godin suggests that writers should force every sentence to justify its purpose. He says, “if it doesn’t move us closer to where we seek to go, delete it.” Simple advice we should all take. My thanks to reader Melissa Webber for sending this link my way.
If you want to write your own book (or thesis or dissertation), consider applying to my Get It Done program. I’m holding a no-charge webinar this Friday (Jan 17/20) to introduce you to the principles I teach in the program. Register by emailing me. If you already want to apply to the program, go here, scroll to the very end of the page and select the bright green “click here to apply now” button.
My video podcast last week gave advice to a viewer who was thinking about starting a literary cafe. 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 are the best blog posts that you’ve read this month? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan, 31/20 will be put in a draw for a copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!