Cool Gift Ideas for Writers and Business Communicators

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Happy holidays, and ‘tis the season for gift giving. I’m taking a break from my usual posts about writing to indulge in a little brainstorming for gifts for the writer and business communicator in your life. The gift can even be for yourself.

Here are a few ideas to get you started on your gift list. Many of these ideas were inspired in part by the Writer’s Digest holiday gift guide.

1. Books. Naturally, books will fall on any writer’s wish list, especially books about writing, reading or creativity. What writer wouldn’t want to add to their library? There are plenty of books available about becoming a better writer, improving your habits, overcoming writer’s block and more. Check out some of these book suggestions.

2. Writer’s tools of the trade. Every writer needs a dictionary, thesaurus, AP Stylebook and/or University of Chicago Manual of Style to complete their library. Add The Elements of Style and a basic grammar book, and their library is complete. They might have a dictionary, but since they are updated annually, it never hurts to give the writer on your list a more current version.

3. Caffeine containers (also known as coffee mugs). No writer or communicator should be without their supply of caffeine. Check out this collection of humorous coffee mugs from Café Press that are sure to put a smile on your face.

4. A really, really nice pen set. Many writers begin writing their stories longhand, so they need plenty of writing instruments to get the job done. Consider giving them a really nice stylish pen set (within budgetary reasons, of course), or a stock of their favorite pen, if they have one. Working with a stylish pen can put them in a more serious frame of mind when they write. Add a stack of notepads or legal pads, and your writer friend will be well stocked and ready to write before the New Year begins.

5. Professional development. Instead of a physical item, consider the gift of experience or education. Continuous learning is important to most writers and communicators. Writers are constantly searching for ways to improve their own craft and become better writers. Consider a gift of a Writer’s Digest subscription or an online course through Mediabistro. Writer’s Digest also offers online workshops.

6. Writing exercises and word puzzles. Exercise your brain and jumpstart your creativity with a magnetic word game. Each magnet contains a word, and with 100 or so word magnets, you can create some pretty imaginative poems. Put them on your refrigerator, and let the family create their own mini-short stories as they grab the milk.

Another option is the Writer’s Toolbox, described as “more exercises and games to inspire ‘the write side of the brain.’ Get the family involved with a Once Upon a Time storytelling card game. One person begins as the Storyteller and begins telling a story using the elements described on their cards, guiding the plot toward their Ending Card. But other players can interrupt the Storyteller with their own elements and the right to take over as the new Storyteller. All these options are sure to be fun for you and the whole family.

7. A book of writing prompts. Occasionally writers need help generating story ideas. To get the creative juices flowing, they might appreciate a book of writing prompts. Before you know it, the writer in your life (or even the writer in you) will be off and running on their next story.

8. Do Not Disturb signs. Some years ago, I once saw a sign that read “Do Not Disturb. Genius at Work.” I laughed at the time, but I think it succinctly describes the sentiment most writers feel when they are at work. Writers are creative geniuses who need privacy and quiet, uninterrupted time to plot, daydream, and craft their stories. Let people know that once that sign is on the door, it’s time to get down to work.

I hope these ideas give you a head start on your gift shopping for the writers in your life. And don’t be shy about giving a gift to yourself. The more you invest in yourself, the more you improve your writing life.

Happy shopping and happy holidays.

Six Writing Causes You Should Support on Giving Tuesday

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As the Christmas holiday season approaches, take a moment to think about the organizations that do a lot a good in your community. As writers and communicators, the nonprofit groups that specialize in promoting literacy and the creative arts should be topmost in our minds. Without the written word, without music or art or dance, where would we all be?

In support of Giving Tuesday, think about how you support literacy and creative arts in your own community. Don’t just think with your purse or wallet either. Think of your time, energy and creative ideas that you can give. How can you better support these organizations? Remember, your volunteer hours mean as much as donated goods or cash.

Below are a few types of nonprofit groups worthy of support on this Giving Tuesday. Remember, giving happens not just today, but every day throughout the year.

Adult Literacy programs
Literacy is for life. If you know how to read and write, it is assumed that those skills can take you far in life. But many U.S. adults fall far behind in literacy.

An April 2017 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that 32 million adults, or 14 percent of the U.S. population, cannot read. About 21 percent of adults read below the fifth grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read (which begs the question: How are they graduating from high school if they can’t read?)

Enter literacy organizations, which aid adults, children and entire families in building their reading and writing skills. Check out 826 National and the National Literacy Directory for a literacy organization near you.

Libraries
Specialty libraries with rare collections often have difficulty acquiring additional reading materials and frequently have difficulty publicizing the work they do. Think of places like the Newberry Library in Chicago with its emphasis on history and research.

Many libraries don’t have the resources to purchase new books either. For example, check out the American Library Association’s guide to book donation programs, which lists libraries that need books to fill their shelves.

Other nonprofit groups accept book donations for resale purposes. From the proceeds of the sale of these donated books, they can fund reading and writing education programs in underserved communities. Check out organizations such as Turning the Page/Carpe Librum Bookstore and Open Books, which serve these purposes in the Chicago area. Similar organizations may be located near you.

Nonprofit writing centers
According to a recent article at Bustle, not everyone is cut out for a university MFA program. But if you want to learn to write and write well, but not necessarily want to earn a MFA, where do you go? The answer is a non-profit writing center, such as Grub Street in Boston or Story Studio in Chicago. For poets, there’s also the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona.

But these organizations can’t operate on their own. That’s where you come in. Donations are needed to purchase classroom materials, cover operating costs and assist with program planning. Not only are these organizations great places to develop your writing skills, they are terrific places for networking and community building. They are worthy of your support in more ways than one.

Museums
Without museums, our connection to our history and culture would be lost, no matter where we come from. Whether it’s a museum of art (The Art Institute of Chicago), writing (American Writers Museum), or science (Shedd Aquarium), museums give us a place to explore, to honor our history while imagining possibilities for the future.

Reading and writing groups for Incarcerated Individuals
Men and women who are serving time often do not have access to books or writing materials, often due to limited resources and funds in the prison system. Non-profit groups like Chicago Books to Women in Prison (which I have volunteered with for the past two years) and the Women’s Book Project in Minneapolis, provide free access to everything from fiction and nonfiction books of all genres, GED study materials, blank composition books, dictionaries, Bibles and career development materials.  There are numerous other organizations dedicated to helping the incarcerated connect with books and writing materials. Pen America is another organization worth checking out for writing programs for the incarcerated.

Arts foundations
Think beyond just books and writing programs. Thinks of the arts too. Consider donations to specialty organizations, such as groups that keep alive the history and legacy of silent films such as the Silent Film Society of Chicago. There are numerous local theater groups, dance companies and music schools that can benefit from your volunteer time. Because they all support the development of artists in various fields, you’re also supporting the development of story tellers in different artistic fields.

By giving to any one of these organizations, you are helping numerous individuals achieve their dreams – to read, to write, to share stories and to communicate with others. And those are causes worthy of your contributions.

On Being Thankful for Being a Writer

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As you gather with your families and friends this Thanksgiving holiday, think about what you are most grateful for, especially as it pertains to your writing. Perhaps you are grateful to have a mentor to guide you through difficult lessons, or maybe you are grateful for Daniel Webster for publishing a dictionary.

I was inspired by a post by Laura Stigler, President of the Independent Writers of Chicago, “On Being Thankful We Can Write,” to create my own list of things I’m thankful for.

* A mother who loved to read and instilled that love of reading in me. When you see a parent reading a book, I believe it encourages kids to become readers too.

* Former teachers who recognized my skill from as early as seventh grade and encouraged me to participate in writing contests. Each compliment and kind word of support made me want to keep writing. There’s nothing like a personal cheering section to keep you motivated.

* Former bosses who appreciated the fact that I could find the best words to explain a process or write a letter to an important client. Other times their tough love approach to critiquing my work only strengthened my resolve to improve.

* Friends who have shared a love of books and reading and who don’t mind talking about the latest book that they liked or didn’t like.

* The authors whose work I have enjoyed over the years, from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” to Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew mysteries when I was young girl to the early works of romantic suspense authors Mary Higgins Clark and Joy Fielding that I enjoyed in my twenties and thirties to more recent favorites, such as Alice Hoffman and Sue Monk Kidd.

* Libraries and librarians, book stores and book discussion groups, who all keep the love of books and reading alive and makes sure there is always a potential audience for the stories writers write.

* For my blog followers, thank you for reading my posts, sharing comments and showing your support.

Most important, I am grateful that I have the talent (or gift, as some writers suggest) for writing and the desire to use it in personal and professional ways. In fact, I think I enjoy the world of books, reading and writing more now than I ever have.

As you spend Thanksgiving with family and friends, remember it’s a time for bonding over shared experiences and swapping stories. And as you share old family legends and tales for the umpteenth time, don’t forget to create new ones to share next year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Facing the Scariest Truths about Writing

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What scares you most about writing? Perhaps it’s the fear of staring at a blank page? Or perhaps, like most folks, it’s a fear of rejection or failure that prevents you from writing.

Yet again, it might be a fear of performing. When you think about it, writing is a form of performance, except it’s done on a computer screen or piece of paper. So staring at these devices can be intimidating for a writer. Maybe all you are really suffering from then is stage fright.

Being fearful is natural. If you weren’t afraid of anything, you wouldn’t be human. Your fears are only bothersome if they interfere with your ability to produce your best work, or worse, prevent you from getting started in the first place.

Below are some common fears writers have about the writing process as well as a few strategies for overcoming them. There might be others that aren’t listed here. Only you know what scares you most about writing, and how you can overcome it.

1. Fear of the blank page. Yes, I would categorize this as a legitimate fear. For many writers, getting started presents the biggest fear. You stare at the blank page or the blank computer screen with no idea what to write about. In those moments, it may be easier to close up shop and try again another day. But don’t give in to that temptation. Instead, try working with a writing prompt. Begin with either “I remember…” or “What if…” and let your imagination go. “I remember” connects you to your past, especially helpful if you want to write a memoir. “What if” helps you imagine events or situations in the future, also great if you want to write science fiction or fantasy.  For more writing prompts, do a Google search, and you’ll find hundreds more.

2. Fear of negative feedback/criticism/rejection. I bundled these three into one category because they seem interchangeable. To get past these fears, you will have to rethink your response to criticism. First of all, not all criticism is bad. When given constructively and honestly, it can help you improve your writing. Think of criticism as a necessary part of the writing process. That’s why there are editors – to point out problem areas that you may not see in your work. Without criticism or negative feedback, your writing will not improve, and in fact, will likely remain stale and stagnant. Who wants to read stale writing?

If showing your work to people is still too scary, then keep your showings to only one or two people who are close to you and who you trust. As you gain more confidence in your writing, you can expand your circle of readers. Remember, you don’t have to show your work at all if you don’t want to, especially if you’re just writing for yourself.

3. Fear of success. It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that a fear of success may be holding you back, but it can. One way the fear of success can manifest is as a series of incomplete projects. You start one with enthusiasm, then another story idea presents itself and you chase after that one, leaving the first story unfinished. You get close to the finish line and you suddenly decide you have more important things to do. You find reasons for not finishing your writing project.

Why this happens, I do not know. Finishing the story is a success in and of itself. It doesn’t matter if it ever gets published. To overcome this fear, try following a simple rule: Don’t begin a new writing project until the first one is complete.

4. Fear of failure. Perhaps the most common fear is the fear of failure. But what does it mean to fail? Numerous rejection letters? If so, turn those rejections into a positive. You made the effort to put your work out there. True failure is not writing at all. True failure is giving up before you have even started.

5. Fear of revealing too much of yourself — or not enough. In today’s social media world, it’s easy to share more of ourselves than we may be used to. Stories are different. Writing and sharing stories requires digging deeply into our past or our present, and sometimes facing some of the darkest aspects of ourselves that we may prefer to hide away. You can’t be afraid to dig deep within yourself for painful life experiences for your stories. That’s where all the juicy stories lie.

6. Fear of aloneness and isolation. Let’s face it. Writing is a solitary and often lonely occupation. If you don’t like being alone, you may delay writing projects because you don’t want the solitude. So instead you look for the ‘right’ environment with people around before feeling comfortable about writing. Coffee shops and libraries, where you are surrounded by people, can help ease those feelings of isolation – as long as you’re not spending time chatting with them and not writing. Writing groups can also help if you’re the more sociable type. Otherwise, take advantage of these quiet periods of aloneness to reconnect with yourself. (I say aloneness because you can be alone and not feel lonely.) Your writing muse will thank you for it.

7. Fear of not being good enough. In the back of your mind, there may be a small voice that tells you that you aren’t good enough. It may come from a long-ago desire to please someone else, someone who dictated what was good about your writing and what wasn’t so good. Only you can decide who you are trying to please. What would happen with your writing if you wrote to please yourself and not for anyone else? When you create a safe environment to write and express yourself, the fear of not being good enough will fade into the background.

Once you become aware of what your fears are and take steps to conquer them, the sky is the limit. Your writing can take you wherever you want to go.

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.