Reading time: About 5 mins (faster if scanning)
Here are my 10 favourite articles or posts from last month, focusing on the most useful, helpful and entertaining pieces for writers.
With rates of COVID vaccination increasing, those of us in the developed world may be able to enjoy something approaching a more “normal” summer this year. Still, the trauma of the last year has been considerable and we won’t be out of the weeds until the entire world has the opportunity to be vaccinated. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to work alone at home, (I’ve been able to get only one vaccination so far), collecting the best and most useful blog posts I can find for you to help bolster your writing goals. Here are my top 10 picks for May.
Make your to-do list less overwhelming
Does your to-do list scare the heck out of you? Or, more to the point, does it overwhelm or depress you? I used to feel that way, but over the last couple of years have managed to reduce my list to something smaller and more manageable.
Let Josh Spector (@jspector) help you do the same with his terrific post, “How to make your to-do list less overwhelming.”
Spector points out that in addition to your to-do list, you also need an “enough list,” which should outline the bare minimum you’ll need to do that day in order to feel accomplished. Here are some other tips he offers:
- Aim small – make your list include as few items as possible
- Prioritize – list the stuff by order of importance
- Work on your enough list first — do all your other tasks later
- Be specific — say things like, “I’m going to write for 15 mins.” Not, “I’m going to become a better writer.”
- Use just one item, if you like — yes, your list can really be that short
- Know you don’t have to work only on your enough list — if you wish, you can do more
Align your calendar with what matters most
Speaking of productivity, do you sometimes (often?) feel you have too much to do and not nearly enough time? Check out a thoughtful post by Steve Schlafman (@schlaf) under the headline, “Aligning your calendar with what matters most.”
By undertaking such an audit of his own working life, Schlafman was able to change his working day so it included a lot more time for himself and his writing projects (he started blocking off 8:15 to 11 am every day for deep work) and he scheduled regular time for exercise.
“This was more than a transformation of my calendar,” he writes. “It was a transformation of me and my life. I wanted my calendar to reflect who I truly am so I can live more intentionally. I’m now more balanced, creative, productive, focused, and fulfilled. I also feel like I finally have the freedom and control that led me to entrepreneurship.”
I follow some of these same principles myself. I time-block every day and I never do meetings before 11 am Pacific. As a result, I find myself to be not just more productive, but also a whole lot happier.
Learn from a writer from the Simpsons
If you struggle with writing, pick up a tip from John Swartzwelder (@SwartzwelderJ) a legendary contributor to Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons TV shows. Here’s a quote from a recent interview in the New Yorker.
“I do have a trick that makes things easier for me. Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it.”
I’d like to say this echoes the advice I give in my Your Happy First Draft book. But as Swartzwelder is older and vastly more successful than I am, I’ll say it presages it.
Thanks to Dave Rakowski for sharing this fascinating post with me.
Pay attention to other book covers
If you’re self-publishing, you’re going to need to hire someone to design the cover of your book. Don’t cheap out by looking for the least-expensive freelancer. And be prepared with some examples of book covers you like.
You won’t go wrong if you also educate yourself by reviewing a terrific post by publisher Nate Hoffelder, (@inkbitspixels), running under the headline, “Five mistakes to make when designing your book cover.” (Note irony!)
Here are the mistakes:
- Not making your genre obvious
- Failing to test on multiple screen sizes and resolutions
- Failing to consider a thumbnail size
- Failing to test the cover on a kindle
- Failing to get feedback from readers and pros
Use scene titles to make writing your novel easier
I’m a non-fiction writer, not a novelist, but I was impressed when I read a post by Janice Hardy (@Janice_Hardy) on using scene titles to make writing easier.
What’s a scene title? It’s a simple description of what’s happening in a scene. Example: “Brynn gets sabotaged in class, so she breaks the rules and improvises.” Of course, these titles don’t appear in the finished manuscript. But they’re useful guidance for the writer. As Hardy puts it, “Writers get stuck on a scene because they don’t know what the scene is about, or what happens at the end of it. Strong scene titles can fix that.”
Reconsider your punctuation
I have a love-hate relationship with the semi-colon. I love it for those (rare) opportunities when it allows you to show an extra close association between two sentences. I hate it when I see how many people use it incorrectly.
If you ever ponder punctuation, you might enjoy a recent LitHub (@lithub) post outlining the punctuation marks loved (and hated) by famous writers.
Who loved the exclamation point? Who hated the comma? Who loved the hyphen? Read on to find out.
Start using check marks
In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, writer Amitava Kumar (@amitavakumar) addresses the power of the check mark. Writing under the headline “The oldest productivity trick around,” Kumar sings the praises of this simple type of record-keeping.
Here is how he phrases his realization: “the check mark… is the visible symbol of my realization that who I am is defined by what I do. I am a writer, so I write every day.”
For anyone interested in learning more about the power of check marks, I highly recommend the book The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, (@Atul_Gawande).
Thanks to Michael Beanland for sharing the NY Times piece with me.
Make sure you get enough sleep
I am an evangelist for sleep because I spent so many years not getting nearly enough of it. A recent 10-minute TED talk by Wendy Troxel (@wendytroxel) addresses this issue — primarily with respect to how lack of sleep affects relationships (negatively, in case you were wondering.)
But lack of sleep also affects writers. Here’s how to fix that problem for yourself.
Learn how freelance writers have survived over the last year
Has your freelance writing career suffered at the hands of the pandemic? Research by the Make a Living Writing website, (@TiceWrites), in partnership with Mindnet Analytics, (@MindnetAnalytic), has shown that the majority of writers saw their incomes either increase or stay the same in 2020 compared to 2019.
You can read the full report here.
But writers who worked for content mills (companies that hire large numbers of freelancers to generate large amounts of copy) formed a notable exception to this happy news story. Most of them earned far lower rates, whether calculated per hour or per job. The message? Stay away from content mills (e.g. Upwork, Fiverr etc.) if you want to earn a good income.
Embrace the time it takes to find a book deal
If you’re seeking a traditional publisher, you have a long, hard slog in front of you. There is nothing easy about the process. (If you want easier, consider self-publishing. Really!)
But if you’re determined to land a traditional deal, take heart with advice from those who have gone before you. In a recent post on the website of Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) writer Catherine Baab-Maguira (@CatBaabMaguira) offers a lovely meditation on the 12 years it took her to ink a book deal. Here is part of what she says:
“The major obstacle standing between many (perhaps most) writers and a book deal isn’t a polished manuscript or proposal. It’s a sense of the publishing landscape as it really is. It’s market information, market know-how: a considered view of where the opportunities lie, of how to pitch and market successfully.”
Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.
My video podcast last week addressed the concept of writing for just one reader. 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 a great blog post you’ve read in the last 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 May 31/21 will be put in a draw for a digital 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!