Seven Questions to Ask Yourself Before Starting a Writing Practice

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Some months ago, I attended a writing workshop on a Saturday morning sponsored by a local writers group. Over one of the breaks, I chatted with the man next to me, an attorney who had recently married. I asked him what kind of writing he did. His answer? “I don’t have time to write. I have a busy law practice and I just got married,” he said rather sheepishly.

It wasn’t until later that I realized the inconsistency of his remark. He claimed not to have time for writing, yet managed to find time from his supposed busy schedule to attend a three-hour writing workshop on a Saturday morning. What’s wrong with that picture?

For many of us, it is far easier to think about, read about and talk about writing than to actually sit down and write. We’d much rather make excuses about why we don’t write than to examine the reasons why we don’t.

A writing practice, as I define it, is a regular, consistent routine of putting pen or pencil to paper (though some people prefer to use a computer). The amount of time devoted to the practice differs from person to person. But whether you spend two hours a day or fifteen minutes a day, the key is consistency. A little bit of writing every day slowly and gradually builds up your practice. And the more you practice, the more comfortable and confident you will feel about your writing. The more you practice, the more progress you will see which gives you more momentum and motivation to keep writing.

Not everyone is mentally or emotionally prepared to begin a writing practice, however. They may have questions about starting a writing practice – lots of them. And they may have self-doubts and fears, either about the writing practice itself or about their own abilities as a writer. As a former colleague once told me years ago, “Fear and self-doubt will kill every opportunity that comes your way.”

So before you embark on this writing journey, ask yourself the following questions. The answers will help you to ‘get real’ about your writing practice.

1. Why do you want to begin a writing practice? Why is a writing practice important to you at this point in your life? Answering this question determines how strong a desire you have to write. If you’re still unsure of your response, answer this question: On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being not important at all and 10 being very important), how important is writing to you?

2. What do you want to achieve with your writing? To eventually get published? To pass along family lore and legends? Or just have fun?

3. What does your writing practice look like to you? What notions, if any, do you have about how much time you should spend on your writing, or where you write? Many of you may have preconceived ideas about what your writing life looks like – about how much time you should spend each day or how many words you should write, what your office space looks like, etc. However, the reality often looks different from the fantasy.

4. What obstacles, excuses or conditions hold you back from starting and maintaining a writing practice? For most people, time management is an issue. Let’s face it, we all lead busy lives. But some people are more willing to adjust their schedules so they have more time to write. Remember, it’s not about having the time to write, but about making the time to write. Those with the greatest desire to write will make the time to write.

Suspense author Mary Higgins Clark was a widow living in New York with five children to support. She had to work to support her family, so she got a job writing radio scripts. Still her desire to write was so strong that she made time in her busy schedule to write her first novel. For two hours every morning from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., she set her typewriter on the kitchen table and wrote. Clark could easily have made excuses for not writing. She didn’t, and she went on to a very successful career.

5. Do you have a dedicated space for writing? If coffee shops are your thing, more power to you. Or like me, do you prefer quieter places, like the library, so you can think, plan and create?

6. Do you have a support system? Are there people in your life who not only provide encouragement and input about your writing, but also respect the time and space you need for writing?

7. How much time are you reasonably willing and able to devote to your practice? If you were to keep a log of your activities for three consecutive days, I bet you would find gaps in your schedule where you could sneak in a writing session. We’re not nearly as busy as we think we are.

The more you understand your motivations and desire to write, the more prepared you will be to begin writing. If the motivation and desire to write isn’t strong to begin with, no amount of encouragement from others will get you started on your practice.

A healthy mindset is also important. If you are not in a good place mentally or emotionally, it will be more difficult to begin a writing practice. When you are in a good place, the stories seem to flow more naturally and organically. You won’t have to ask, “What do I write about?”

Over the coming weeks, I will continue to explore some of these concepts in greater detail. If you have any questions about how to start a writing practice, feel free to post a comment below.

The Great American Read Reveals Viewers’ Most Beloved Books

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PBS completed its five-month series, The Great American Read, which examined Americans’ most favorite novels. The program was hosted by former Today Show host Meredith Viera. I missed the program, unfortunately, but here is a wrap up of the top 25 most beloved novels, as selected by program viewers.

Topping the list at number one is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It hit the number one spot since day one and held it all the way through. Written and published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story of a young girl in the South who tries to make sense of the cruelty she sees within their community as her father – a local, crusading attorney – defends a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime. The story has as much significance today as it did when it was published, which is why it seems to resonate with many readers and PBS viewers.

Rounding out the top five is the Outlander series, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and the Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien. The top 25 is listed below, followed by a few of my observations, but you can find the entire list of the top 100 on the PBS website.

The Great American Read — Top 25 Most Beloved Books

1. To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee
2. The Outlander (series) — Diana Gabaldon
3. Harry Potter (series) — J.K. Rowling
4. Pride and Prejudice — Jane Austen
5. Lord of the Rings — J.R.R. Tolkien
6. Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
7. Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
8. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
9. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis
10. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
11. Anne of Green Gables – Lucy Maud Montgomery
12. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
13. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith
14. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
15. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
16. The Help – Kathryn Stockett
17. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
18. 1984 – George Orwell
19. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
20. Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
21. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
22. Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry
23. The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett
24. The Stand – Stephen King
25. Rebecca – Daphne de Maurier

A few observations/assessments:

1. The Outlander series at number two is higher than I expected, even higher than Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia series which have been around longer and have had a loyal readership.

2. The Book Thief, which I thoroughly enjoyed, placed number 14, higher than I expected. Meanwhile, The Handmaid’s Tale, behind the strength of its streaming series, was lower than I expected at number 34. I thought Handmaid would be in the top 20.

Of the books listed in the top 25, I’ve read 10 of them. I suppose that’s a good sign, considering I’ve read 18 of the entire top 100. Many of the remaining top 25 are books already sitting on my shelf waiting to be read while others I have heard about and would like to read. Still, I have a lot of reading to catch up on.

What about you? As you review this list, what jumps out at you? Are there any books that are missing from the top 100? Are there any titles that were higher or lower than you expected? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

One thing about programs and surveys like this, it generates a lot of discussion and debate. But one thing we all can agree on, America’ love of books and reading is alive and well.

Want to Improve Your Own Writing? Read Poorly Written Books

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In his book On Writing, (which I highly recommend), author Stephen King suggests that if you want to be a better writer, all you have to do is read. Read a lot. And read a variety of stories.

Of course, that might mean exposing yourself to less than stellar writing. But that’s okay.  Even the less-than-stellar samples can show writers a thing or two about crafting stories – the right way.

Perhaps I should begin by defining what I mean by ‘bad writing.’ It isn’t just about a lack of proper grammar and punctuation, although that’s part of it. It has more to do with the development of the story. Think stilted dialogue, implausible plot lines and poorly drawn characters. It isn’t the writing that’s poorly done as much as the storytelling.

As British author Toby Litt writes in The Guardian, bad writing is boring writing. Bad writing are stories you can’t wait to finish because they are dreadfully boring, or one that you don’t finish at all. On the other hand, a well-crafted, well-written book is one that keeps your attention all the way through. It makes you want to turn the page, and the next page and the next page, and so on.

In my opinion, a good book may not be the highest quality writing. It may not even be a best-seller. But what it does well is keep the reader involved in the story and with the characters, especially the protagonist. If you have a hard time putting a book down, it means the author has successfully designed the story to satisfy your interest. You want to read more to find out what’s going to happen next.

After you’ve read enough stories of different genres, your brain begins to notice differences in the way authors develop their plots and characters, or the way dialogue and narration are presented. When you’ve read enough books, you recognize contrived plot lines and inconsistent behavior from characters. You can decide, as the reader, what is believable and what isn’t. By reading bad writing, you are, hopefully, aware enough of your own skill not to commit the same mistakes.

I recently finished reading a romance novel by an author whose work I had read before and enjoyed. I looked forward to a light, easy read. It was anything but. The plot was not believable, the female protagonist behaved in ways that was not consistent with her character, and the overall experience of reading the book was unpleasant. I felt disappointed and cheated.

You don’t want to do that to your readers.

I doubt I will read anything else by this particular author ever again, although I will pick up another romance novel. They can be fun reads on their own — when they’re written well.

Lesson learned from that reading experience: Make sure the plot is plausible and believable and your protagonist behaves in ways that are true to their personality.

Bad writing can appear in any genre, and sometimes in best-sellers. If in doubt about what ‘bad writing’ is, check out Goodreads’ list of ‘poorly written’ books. Among the Fifty Shades of Gray and Twilight collections is The Da Vinci Code. I once tried to read it many years ago and couldn’t get through it. The language was overly descriptive and heavy, moving the narrative along at a snail’s pace. I kept wanting the author to pick up the pace. Naturally, I never made it to the end.

Lesson from that reading experience: Don’t get so bogged down in details that the story slows to a crawl. Keep moving the story along and you will maintain your readers’ interest. Keep that in mind when you do your own writing.

On the upside, reading bad writing can put your own writing into perspective. You can say to yourself, “Hey, I can write better than this. If this trash is being published, maybe there’s hope for me yet in this business.”

The more you read, the more you can learn from the mistakes other writers have made. So even if you have to trudge through a few bad apples along the way, you can still gain from the experience and improve your writing at the same time.

Related Reading about ‘Bad Writing’:
https://bookriot.com/2013/06/27/the-case-for-reading-bad-books/

https://joshcraigwrites.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/about-reading-poorly-written-books/

For Some Writers, The Pen IS Mightier Than the Keyboard


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Why Longhand Writing May Be Beneficial for Your Writing

Stephen King does it. So does Kristen Hannah. So do Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates, Joshua Ferris and Andre Dubus III.

They are all writers who write their first drafts in longhand with pen and paper.

Whether you are writing a novel, short story, essay or even a business writing project, like a report or white paper, it may seem counterintuitive to write the first draft longhand rather than use a computer. Writing longhand is too time consuming, you might say. Who has the patience for that?

Lots of writers have weighed in on this topic. You can find links to some of their opinions at the bottom of this post.

Funny thing is, writers who previously wrote their stories on their laptop and experimented with writing longhand say they are sold. There is something about that physical process that helped them be more productive and access their imagination more readily. Some writers claim that there’s a stronger hand-to-heart connection that helps them access deeply held emotions which comes across in their writing.

The process of writing longhand can be liberating. By writing my stories longhand, I’m able to focus on the story development process. Writing longhand seems to open up a pathway to the brain where the core of creativity lies. Amazing things have happened as I write. Characters began showing up that hadn’t been part of the story before, and scenes went off into different unanticipated directions. That’s the fun part of writing.

Writing longhand provides physical proof of your progress. Every notebook or legal pad you write on shows the results of your daily efforts. Seeing your work in black and white can make you feel good about your progress and you’ll want to keep writing. It’s a great motivator to your writing practice. If consistency (or lack thereof) has been a problem for you, try writing longhand and see how it affects your writing practice.

When choosing between the mighty pen and laptop, also think about your typing skills. How fast do you type? If you aren’t fast or accurate, writing longhand might also be a better option for you. Writing might seem slower than typing, but ideas may begin to flow at a rate you can keep up with.

When I first tried writing stories on the computer, I didn’t get very far. I was too busy editing as I was writing. Or I would go back to correct misspelled words. The process you think would be faster and easier was actually slower because I was trying to do both writing and editing at the same time, which means I was using both sides of the brain.

Multi-tasking might be fine, but not when your brain is engaged. Now I use a pen and notebook for writing while I reserve the laptop for typing my stories from the page and editing them. Yes, that might seem like an extra step. But maybe it isn’t. I am editing as I’m transferring my words during that process so it now becomes my second draft. I feel I have gotten more done because I am focused on one activity at a time and I’m not overloading my brain.

Another problem with doing your writing on the computer is the temptation to check details via the Internet, which is obviously more accessible. If you stop writing to check a piece of information, chances are you won’t get back to your writing for another three hours because you got lost in the World Wide Web. You won’t have that temptation if you write longhand.

Here are a few other ways writing longhand can improve your writing:

* Writing longhand may help undo writer’s block. The next time you feel blocked, try writing longhand. Experts say the process of writing has a cognitive benefit. It is directly connected to the part of the brain that governs creativity. By writing longhand, you are actually getting in touch with your creativity.

* It forces you to focus on one activity at a time – writing — which is actually more productive than trying to write and edit at the same time, which uses both sides of the brain. That kind of multi-tasking might actually be counterproductive.

* Brain dumping is easier when writing longhand. Let’s face it. The first draft is always a mess. So what if you write it by hand? You give yourself permission to write crappy copy from the start. With a pen it’s easier to cross out, add, write in the margins, or make notes about what to look up later. Yes, it will look messy, but that’s your brain at work.

* Pen and paper are more portable and lightweight. These writing tools travel easily anywhere you go, whether it’s your front porch, your bedroom, the local coffee shop or the library. You don’t have to worry about missing cords or recharging batteries. It’s just your pen, paper and your ideas. That’s what I call traveling light.

* Pen and paper isn’t hard on your eyesight the way a computer screen is. Sitting in front of computer screen for hours each day is hard on your eyesight. Is it a wonder so many of us wear eyeglasses? And the rays from the screen can affect our ability to sleep at night. Paper and pen don’t have the same impact.

Before you dismiss the idea of writing your stories longhand, give it a try. See how it affects your writing.  Are you more productive? Are you more focused on your story and less distracted by the Internet of things? The computer has its place in the writing process. But when it comes to launching your first draft, pen and paper may be the best way to get you to “The End.”

Uncovering Fake News: Advice from a TV Journalist

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News stories are everywhere – on TV, the Internet, social media and good old-fashioned print newspapers and magazines. But how do you know whether the news stories you  read are true or fake?

In a program sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the League of Women Voters in late September that I attended, journalist Dorothy Tucker of the local CBS affiliate addressed these issues. Fake news, she said, is deliberate misinformation. Sometimes called “yellow journalism,” its roots can be traced back to pre-Civil War and slavery. During those days, newspaper cartoons often depicted slaves as content and at peace with their role in society, which was not true.

When immigrants began moving to America, they were portrayed in political cartoons negatively, often as ignorant and subservient, which was also not true. The intent in both these cases was to depict these minority groups in ways that gave the wrong impression to the public. These stories were the original “fake news.”

Fast forward to the 21st century. Facebook is the by far the biggest source of fake news. Tucker said an estimated 22 percent of news stories funneled through Facebook prior to the 2016 elections was fake news. These stores were planted by Russian agents with the intent to deliberately mislead the American public about the candidates. In some cases, pages were set up by and for non-existent groups to feed off people’s fears and create divisions within the public.

To complicate matters, there are more news outlets covering events today than ever before. Twenty years ago, there might have been only a handful of journalists covering a story, five or six at the most, Tucker said. Today, with the impact of the Internet and blogs, there may be 50 or 60 people covering a story. Not all of today’s bloggers and website owners have a background in journalism or understand basic journalistic standards and practices. They often report events without checking the facts.

It’s a crowded field, and with so many people vying for a chance to break a news story before the next person, the truth can get lost in the shuffle. And with so much news out there, how does an individual like you and me decipher what is real and what is fake, or gossip, or just plain wrong?

It is up to us, as individuals, to be more discerning about the stories we hear and see. We can’t assume what we read on the Internet is truthful, nor can we assume that what we hear in any news media is fake. Tucker outlined some things we can all do to check out a story.

1. Check out the media source or news outlet that ran the story. Do a Google search to see if news outlet exists. If so, what other stories has it published? Does the organization have a website? If so, check it out. Is there an About page? What does that page say about the organization? Is there an editor or editorial board? Is there a way to contact the news organization? If there is no About page, no information about the news organization and no ways to contact them, chances are they are a fake organization publishing fake news.

2. Check out the author of the story. Search Google to see if their name exists. Have they written other stories at other news outlets? Do they have a website? Check their bio on their website, and make sure there is a way to contact them. Most legitimate author sites will have this information.

3. Check the published date of the article as well as any photo or image that accompanies it. Check the source of the photo or image. It might have been “stolen” from another Internet site, often without the knowledge or consent of the person photographed. The photo or story might have been published a few years ago. Fake news outlets have been known to take a story from a few years before and embellish it for their purposes. If you can trace it back to the original story, then you found a fake news story.

4. Check the content of the news story against fact-checking services like Snopes.com, Poynter Fact-Checking Tips and Factcheck.org. Insert the URL of the story into the space provided and these services will scan the story to determine how much of the story is factual.

As we move forward into the mid-term election season, we all have to exercise better judgment and stronger awareness of news sources. We need to look at each news story with a keen eye and healthy dose of  skepticism about what is factual and what is fake. We all have to take greater responsibility for the news we share with others too, especially on social media sites. We may inadvertently be spreading fake news. Like the old adage, if it sounds too good (or ridiculous) to be true, it probably isn’t.

ALA Banned Books Week 2018 Calls for Reader Activism to End Censorship

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Anyone who loves books and loves reading will appreciate the advocacy effort being led by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom this week.

Banned Books Week (Sept 23-29) is an initiative that began in 1982 that brings together entire book communities – librarians, journalists, editors, teachers, writers and publishers, and of course, readers – to show support or the freedom to seek and express ideas.

This year, Banned Books Week focuses on author and reader activism. Readers are encouraged to get involved in one or several programs to fight censorship, particularly of the books that are frequently targeted with removal or restricted access in libraries and schools. Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship and the benefits of unrestricted reading.

Here are a few ways you can get involved:

Dear Banned Author Campaign
This letter-writing campaign encourages readers to write to, tweet or email authors whose works have been banned or challenged and share with them how their stories have affected them. Dear Banned Author attempts to raise awareness of books that are threatened with censorship and generates discussions about the essential access to library materials. Readers are invited to share their stories online and join the conversation using the hashtags #DearBannedAuthor and #BannedBooksWeek.

Virtual Banned Read-Out
Since the inception of Banned Books Week in 1982, libraries and bookstores across the country have hosted local read-outs – continuous readings of banned and challenged books. Banned authors have also participated, including Judy Blume among others.

Readers can participate by posting a video of themselves on YouTube reading from a banned book or talking about censorship. To submit a read-out video on YouTube, visit the ALA website. If you’re a bit camera shy, choose one of the books from the banned lists and read it this week on your own – without cameras. Some previously banned and challenged books include The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and more recently George by Alex Gino and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. The ALA has lists of banned and challenged books on their website, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks.

There are other ways to show your support. Check out ALA’s Banned Books Week website to learn more.

As readers, writers and communicators, this is an issue we all need to get behind.

Book Review: Writing from the Heart

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Writing is easy, but getting started can be a challenge. Many writers use any number of excuses to avoid getting started: no time, the kids, no privacy, no inspiration, no place to write, too busy.

You get the idea.

Perhaps the most pressing reason that many people can’t get started writing is because they are emotionally stuck. The stories and words will not flow because it’s been shut off by fear, guilt, disappointment, pain — you name it. To get those stories flowing, you need to release those emotions. Yet, ironically, writing is one way to release them.

In her book Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice, author Nancy Slonin Aronie addresses many of the issues that stop us from hearing our internal voice. (Some of you may know Aronie from National Public Radio’s All Things Considered  program.)

Though this book was published more than 20 years ago, Aronie’s writing advice holds true today as much as it did then. Below are several of my favorite suggestions from her book. You might find them helpful too.

1. Look at everything as if it is new to you. You might see a place, a thing, a person every day and you can become so accustomed to seeing it that you don’t every really see it. You might notice the tree in your front yard, but do you really see it? Do you notice the change in leave colors, the change in the bark, the thickness of the branches, the way the leaves sway in the breeze, the ants that crawl up the bark? Do you notice it throughout the seasons or at different times of day? Look at that tree as if you are seeing it for the first time. What do you see? Do the same for any person or thing in your life. You may never look at any one thing the same way ever again.

2. Feel your feelings, deal with them and heal yourself. Before you can open yourself up to the writing process, Aronie advises writers to allow themselves time to feel the hurts and disappointments of the past. By staying with those feelings, you learn to face them with courage and dignity. The hurts of the past may never dissolve completely, but they are there to remind you of what you have experienced. And you can always draw into that life experience to write your stories. It is through writing about them that you can heal.

3. Focus on the process of writing, not the end product. Writing should give you joy on the inside. It’s an internal process. But when you focus only on the end product, you lose that enjoyment because you are looking for external gratification. If you want to write with greater joy, focus on the process, the way the story develops. With each step forward in the writing process, new scenes and characters will reveal themselves to you, bringing with them a sense of mystery and wonder. It’s these unexpected developments that what make writing fun.

4. Write for yourself, not for someone else. To make writing work for you, write for yourself, and only for yourself. Write for your own enjoyment. Write for your personal growth and professional development. Write to challenge yourself. Write to express your creativity. Write to heal your hurts and share your joys. Write because you want to, not because you have to. When you write for someone else, you are listening to their feedback in your head before you’ve even written a word. When you write for someone else, it is their words you hear in your head, not your own. When you write, you need to write your own words, not someone else’s.

5. Define what creativity means to you. Some people avoid writing because they think they are not creative enough. Most people have the idea that being creative means having some artistic talent, like being a musician, a dancer or photographer. But being creative means more than that. Being creative means finding creative solutions to problems, looking at the world in a different way, or writing a story with a unique point of view. Writing is just one outlet for creativity. There are many more. Once you define creativity on your terms, writing becomes much easier.

6. Look at the world from a different perspective. To shake up your creative juices, look at the world through a different pair of eyes. You might remember the day you graduated from high school, but ask your friends, your teachers or your parents to share their memory of that day. How did they experience that day? What did they notice that you might have missed? Look at the same event through their eyes and perhaps you will begin to see the same event in a different way.

Writing from the heart is an emotional process, rather than a technical one. Once you release old wounds and trust your inner voice, the heart opens to new possibilities, paving the way to writing stories that reflect who you are.

How to Be Productive During Downtime at the Office

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As summer crawls to an end, you may find yourself in the middle of some serious downtime at work. Every business has its busy seasons and not-so-busy times. For some businesses, the months of July and August are the slowest, while for others, the slow time may fall in January and February.

No matter where your slow season falls, don’t hang your head. Those slow times happen for a reason. Think of them as breathing room, a chance to catch your breath, recharge your batteries and prepare for the busier season that lies ahead.

Instead of feeling bored or hanging out on Facebook trying to look busy when you’re not, here are a few ways to be more productive during those inevitable downtime periods.

1. Follow up with your clients. If your company relies on regular or frequent client interaction to be successful, downtime might be an opportune moment to check in on them. What’s happening with their business? How are they using your products or services? With a more relaxed pace at work, you can take your time with your client and enjoy an easy conversation with them. No pressure. Not only are you helping to maintain your business relationships, you might unearth a need that your business might be able to solve for them.

2. Do some housekeeping/clean out old files. Got any old files still lying around the office taking up valuable space? Downtime is a good opportunity to roll up the sleeves and dig through them. Depending on how old the files are, you can either put them in storage or if they are really, really outdated, say more than seven years old, bring them to a recycling center. Just be sure to clear things with the bosses before you destroy any important documents. If in doubt, ask.

3. Catch up on billing and record keeping. During busy times, it can be easy to let receipts and bills stack up. Downtime is the perfect time to sit down and go through all your receipts, process paper work to your accountant and just get organized. Imagine how good you will feel when you are all caught up.

4. Catch up on reading and studying industry news. Like most professionals, you probably have a stack of magazines or clipped articles from your favorite business websites that you never had the chance to read. Now is the time to do that. You might pick up a tip or two that you can implement right away.

5. Brainstorm and innovate. Throughout the year, you’ve probably had a few insights about how your business operates. Perhaps you realized that there might be a better way to get customer feedback or an easier way to update your database. Jot them down. Grab a note pad and brainstorm all the different ways you can improve your business. Better yet, keep a small notebook with you throughout the year and jot down ideas as you think of them. Then during these downtimes, review these collected ideas to see if there are any worth implementing.

6. Attend a conference or workshop. Perhaps you’ve read a few magazine articles that have whetted your appetite for more knowledge about a particular topic. Take the next step. Check listings to see if there are any workshops or conferences that would fit your interests. If you can’t step away from the office, consider one of the free online courses that you can do at your desk, such as Udemy.

7. Review your business and marketing plan. Plan for the year ahead by reviewing your business and marketing plan. Are you on track with meeting your goals? Is there something you can do differently now to meet those goals by the end of the year? Downtime is ideal for reviewing your business goals, revising them if you need to, and figure out way to market your business so you achieve them. Don’t have a business and marketing plan? Downtime is ideal for getting started on one.

Don’t let downtime go to waste. Downtime is a gift to catch your breath after a long hectic stretch of meetings, sales calls and presentations. Downtime is the best time to review the past and prepare for the future.

Four Things to Know Before Hiring a Copywriter

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There will come a time in your business when you need to outsource certain professional services, such as bookkeeping or copy writing. I can’t speak about hiring bookkeepers, but as a writer, I do know a thing or two about hiring copywriters because I’ve been hired as one.

Not all writers are alike. Some have different areas of expertise, such as legal writing or advertising. Some have years of experience while others are new to the industry and are looking to gain experience. Finding someone to write your marketing copy is not for the faint of heart. How do you know that the person you hire has the skills and experience to get the job done? More important, how do you know that they are trustworthy?

A discussion among several writers on Facebook revealed their advice to businesses before hiring a professional copywriter. Here are a few of their suggestions.

1. Beware of cheap copy. If you think you can get good writing for a cheap price, guess again. The old adage, “You get what you pay for” is true here. Good copy writing is not cheap. Don’t expect to plunk down $10 for a 500-word blog post and expect a well-researched, well-written piece. Don’t be surprised if what you get is copy with poor grammar, misspelled words and other problems that will need to be fixed. Be prepared to pay a little more for better quality. Check sources like The Balance Small Business or the Editorial Freelancers Association to get an idea about pricing.

2. Ask for samples of the writer’s work. Their samples will demonstrate their ability to do research, their knowledge of the subject and the presentation. If they don’t have samples to show you, give them a writing test. Ask them to write about a topic of your choice covering specific points. Their final product will help you see their process. It will also show you if they are able to follow instructions.

3. Look for someone with whom you can work. What kind of personality do they have, and is that personality compatible with yours? Obviously, similar personalities can lead to a mutually productive and beneficial relationship.

4. Outline your expectations for the project and put it in writing. It will help the hired copywriter to see the details of the project up front. The more detail you can provide and the more clearly you present what you envision for the outcome, the more likely you will receive a fair and accurate quote. It’s important to be clear about what you want the writer to achieve. It can be frustrating to be sought out for a writing job only to learn that the person hiring you is unclear about what they want or they want too many things. Putting your expectations in writing can avoid any potential confusion.

These tips may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many businesses overlook these steps. Instead some business owners may rush into hiring a friend’s college kid out of loyalty.

If you want good, quality copy writing for your business, be willing to do a little leg work up front and pay a little more for their services. Professional writers might cost more, but they will produce better results and they’ll likely do it in less time. And that’s money in the bank.

Four Fun Activities to Break the Ice at Networking Events

Group of guys
Image courtesy of Hub Spot

Networking events can be tedious to attend, especially if you’re uncomfortable meeting new people. But they can be difficult to plan as well, particularly if the point of the event is to introduce participants to one another. It can be a challenge to come up with fun and innovative ways for participants to get acquainted.

In all the meetings and events I’ve attended over the years, a few have stood out for their sense of fun and creativity. That’s because the planners started off with an innovative ice breaker that set the tone for the evening.

Below are a few of those ice breakers. The next time you are faced with planning a networking event, experiment with one of these ideas. You can find other ideas by following the links at the bottom of this article.

1. The M&M Game 
As participants enter the room, invite them to grab a handful of M&Ms from a bowl. Once they are seated, have them set aside three individual candies of different colors, which will be used as part of their introduction. Before they introduce themselves, the leader will reveal a set of questions they must answer based on their three candy colors they chose. The questions can be personal or business-related. For example, a red M&M might mean: What do you hope to learn from this session? A green one might mean: What business are you in? You get the idea. This exercise puts a twist on the traditional introduction at the start of the session. Plus you get to eat the candies afterward.

2. Fill-in-the-Blank Index Card
Each participant is handed an index card with twelve boxes, each containing a clue. Using the clues as a guide, the participant’s task is to match a person with the clue. For example, the clue might be “has green eyes.” The task is to find someone else attending the event who has green eyes. That person will put their signatures on that square. Each participant must move around the room, getting signatures from other attendees that match the description on the card. For larger crowds, it might be helpful to have three or four different versions of the card. Other suggested clues: shoe color, hair color, traveled to Europe (or Asia or South America), has a dog, has a bird, plays tennis, reads comic books, practices yoga, has three or more kids, lives in a high-rise building, lives in the suburbs, drives a SUV, etc. Mix it up. The goal is to have the card completely signed by twelve different individuals. This exercise assures that everyone meets at least twelve people during the event. It’s a great way to build a network in a safe, fun environment. For more fun, offer a prize for the first person to complete their card before the program begins.

3. The “Who Am I?” Guessing Game
Especially fun for a more relaxed environment, such as a part or a picnic. As people arrive, put a piece of paper on their backs with the name of a celebrity or other famous personality. Since they won’t know who they are, their task is to figure it out by asking questions about their famous personality. But there are three rules: They can ask no more than twenty questions; the questions must be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’; the questions must be asked of twenty different people. For example, “Am I a female?”, and “Am I singer?” They keep asking questions until the answers add up to a complete picture of their character. Ideally, they will have met at least twenty individuals along the way. For more fun, you might consider offering a prize to the person who guesses who they are with the fewest clues.

4. Speed Networking
 Speed networking is just like speed dating, except you’re not looking for someone to date, but someone to do business with, offer your services to or hire for a position at your company. Mind you, I have never heard of or participated in a speed networking event, but hey, if it works for dating, why not for business networking?

Speed networking would work like this. When people arrive, they are divided into group A and group B, regardless of gender. Just like with speed dating, group A people will remain seated at each of the tables while group B switch seats as they move from one table to the next for each round of conversation. Allow a set period of time for conversation, say five minutes, before the bell sounds and the line moves on. Participants can always continue their conversations after the speed networking event. After two hours, imagine how many people you could add to your business network. Many of them may not fit your needs at that time, but keep their business cards. You never know when you might need to talk with them later. (Editor’s note: I’ve never participated in a speed networking event, though I’m sure there are events similar in nature.)

Networking doesn’t have to be all work and no play. With some ingenuity, you can help participants break the ice with each other and get your meetings off to a rollicking, productive start.

Related Articles:
20 Icebreakers to Make Your Next Meeting Fun
6 Icebreaker Games For Work That Your Team Will Love
The 10 Best Icebreaker Activities for Any Work Event