In Search of Your True Writing Voice

blank paper with pen and coffee cup on wood table
Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

It’s not easy transitioning from a career in business communications to fiction writing. The hardest part about the transition is finding your voice. In business communications, the writing voice is impersonal, detached and, well, business-like. Communications are focused on the needs of the company or client that you’re writing for. Your personal voice is absent.

When you begin to write fiction, on the other hand, it’s imperative to find your writing voice because your story and characters are all extensions of yourself.

Finding your writing voice matters for several reasons. It establishes consistency throughout your body of work. It gives your writing personality. Finally, it helps readers know who you are. You can’t hide behind your words; you have to learn to write from the heart. That’s how readers will find you and keep coming back to you.

According to the NY Book Editors blog, a writer’s voice is a combination of three factors: the writing style, perspective and tone.

Style is the character of the writing; the words and phrases you use and how you express your ideas. Style is developed by years of practice and experimentation. It also helps to read the works of different authors from different genres to sample their writing style. Over time, you pick up bits and pieces from authors you admire. Style may be short, abrupt sentences or long sweeping poetic ones. However you develop your style will eventually become your hallmark, editors say.

Perspective is how you choose to view a situation and relay what’s happening. Perspective is drawn from your history of experience and knowledge of the situation. For example, when a car accident occurs on a busy street corner, one witness standing on the sidewalk will have a different perspective of the accident than the passenger in one of the involved vehicles and the policeman who arrives to investigate it will have yet a different perspective.

Tone is the attitude or feeling about the story that you’re telling. It can be serious or sad, or it can be humorous and upbeat. Tone gives readers a clue about how to feel about what’s happening in the story.

It can take years to find and refine your writing voice. Here are a few ways to help you find it.

1. Spend time alone with your thoughts. Be aware of the ideas, notions and imaginings going through your head. Note the conversations you have with yourself internally.  Notice your own feelings too. Do you feel cheerful, optimistic, sad, guilty or fearful? What is the source of those feelings? Where are they coming from? It might help to learn meditation to be fully present with yourself.

2. Keep a journal. Most writers do keep a journal. It helps them take stock of their experiences. If you prefer, carry a small notebook in your pocket or purse so you can jot down ideas and observations as you go about your day.

3. Write letters. If you’ve ever written a personal letter to someone, you know how difficult it can be to find the right  words to express how you feel. The practice of writing letters helps you access what you’re feeling in your heart. Writing from the heart is the key to finding your writing voice.

4. Read different authors. When you read different genres and authors, you expose yourself to different ways of storytelling. We naturally pick up bits and pieces along the way from other writers, especially ones whose works we admire. Over time, you will synthesize different styles to form your own.

5. Freewrite. As I’ve described in previous posts, freewriting is the practice of writing nonstop for several pages about anything that comes to mind. There are no right or wrong answers to what you put down on paper. It’s simply a fast, easy way to access parts of your subconscious that you may have kept hidden, even from yourself. You never know what shows up on those freewritten pages. When you go back to re-read what you’ve written, the writing will most likely be sloppy, but you may find hidden gems of heart-felt emotion. That’s where your voice will emerge.

If you want to explore this topic more, I highly recommend the book Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice by Nancy Slonim Aronie.

Finding your true voice as a writer does not happen overnight. It takes practice and dedication to access those parts of you that readers will appreciate.

Writing Websites You Should Know

Writer’s Digest magazine just published its annual list of 101 best websites for writers in its May/June 2020 issue. I’m pleased to see several of my favorite sites named to this list, including Bookends Literary Blog and Writer Unboxed.

I am inspired to share some of my favorite websites about writing. Some provide helpful advice for developing a writing career while others offer online courses and tools for getting started writing. Some focus on freelancing, others on blogging. Yet a couple of them focus on finding and working with literary agents.

Take some time to browse these sites to find resources and inspiration for your own writing needs. You just might learn something new.

Professional development

Writer’s Digest – This is the largest collection of writing resources you’ll find on the web, and maybe the only one, depending on what you’re looking for. They offer online classes, webinars and a critique service called 2nd Draft. You could probably get lost in their archives of articles that go back quite a few years. It’s worth spending a rainy afternoon browsing their site.

DIY MFA – Most writers can’t afford to return to school for an MFA program. That’s why this site is so helpful. DIY MFA offers time management and productivity tools to help you manage your writing process more easily. Just for fun, check out the random generated prompt feature. Just hit the Shuffle button, and the app spins to reveal a protagonist, situation, and scene to get you started on a story.

Freelancing

Contently.net — Contently.net is a platform for freelance professionals. Its blog The Freelancer provides relevant content related to operating a freelance business, from setting rates, making sure you get paid, and finding new clients. You can also sign on to their platform to showcase your work to Contently’s clients.

Freelancers Union – If you currently freelance or would like to start freelancing, this site is a must. According to its website, Freelancers Union has been advocating for the rights of independent workers since 1995. The site gives them access to insurance benefits, education, community and a political voice that is so necessary these days.

Literary Agents

Books and Such Blog – Focused on books, publishing and life, this blog gives readers an inside view on the world of book publishing from the perspective of a literary agent. What I like most about their site is that they are always so positive and motivating to new authors.

Bookends Literary Blog – Bookends provides practical advice for finding the right literary agent for your manuscript. There’s lots of information about when and how to query an agent, what to do when you meet them at conferences, and what agents look for when reviewing a manuscript.

Content Marketing/Blogging


Copyblogger – If you specialize in content marketing for your own business or for a client, Copyblogger offers all the tools and tips you need to operate your blog efficiently and profitably.

Problogger – Whether you’re new at blogging or have been managing one for a while, you can always learn something new about blogging at Problogger. This site provides insights into the latest trends in blog publishing, such as adding video and podcasts to your site.

The Art of Blogging – If you’re just starting out blogging, The Art of Blogging can be your go-to source of practical information on how to get started. The site covers everything from how to write headlines and improve readership to how to earn money from your blog.

Communities

The Writing Cooperative – You could spend hours on The Writing Cooperative site browsing through hundreds of articles. They are writers too, and the belief is that writers can learn from each other. As their tag line says, “A community of people helping each other write better.” You’ll find articles from blogging and fiction writing to grammar and time management. Most important, reading and learning from others’ experience can motivate you to be more dedicated to your craft.

She Writes – This online community of women writers offers different perspectives of the writing life. While they are currently closed to new members, you can still browse the multitude of articles by and for women writers. They also have special interest groups such as travel writing, blogging and struggling novelists. Also check out their sister site, She Writes Press which offers hybrid publishing options for women authors.

Publishing Resources

Writer Unboxed – This blog covers the craft and business of writing fiction, and has more than 50 authors and industry professionals contributing content daily. With so many perspectives, you’ll learn something new every day.

Jane Friedman.com – Any writer who wants to improve their writing and, more important, stay motivated, should check out Jane Friedman’s site. A former editor at Writer’s Digest and a current occasional columnist for Publisher’s Weekly, Friedman is renowned for her knowledge of the publishing industry and freely shares her insights about its changing landscape. Sign up for her newsletter and check out the archives for publishing advice, or sign up for one of her sponsored online courses.

Storyaday.org – If you want to get started writing every day, this site will give you the tools to do so. You’ll find a daily prompt to get you thinking about your next story. The site is less focused on getting published and more about challenging yourself to think and write creatively.

The Write Life – This is another helpful resource for writers from blogging and freelancing to marketing your writing services. This is an especially practical place to go for news and advice about building your writing business.

Getting Published

Creative Nonfiction – If you specialize in memoir and personal essays, this site is for you. Creative Nonfiction is a literary journal published twice a year usually centered around a central theme. They also publish a mini-magazine True Story for long-form pieces. In addition, they offer online courses, webinars and self-guided classes year round.

Submittable – Submittable is a multi-faceted platform where writers can research literary publications, and submit and track your manuscripts. It’s a must tool to make it easy to manage your essay publication process. It’s free for individuals to use. You can also find grant applications and projects for screenwriting. 

Narrative Magazine – A new entry on my list is Narrative, an online magazine that publishes short stories, novel excerpts, nonfiction essays and poetry. They operate as a nonprofit, so donations are always welcome. Most important, they encourage new and emerging writers to submit to their publication.

What about you? Do you have a favorite website or blog about writing?

Finish What You Start: Tips for Completing That First Draft

letters on yellow tiles forming the end text
Photo by Ann H on Pexels.com

How many first drafts do you have tucked away in a desk drawer? If you’re like me, the answer is at least two, maybe three.

You start the project with enthusiasm, proceed steadily until the halfway point, maybe even  two-thirds of the way through. Then suddenly, inexplicably, you stop. Why did you stop writing?

There are several possible reasons. Either you stop to go back to review what you’ve already written, and then you get detoured editing and rewriting sections of it. (Guilty!) Or you get stuck with the plot, unsure where you want it to go next, so you set it aside until inspiration strikes. (Guilty of that too!) Or you believe your writing simply isn’t any good so you abort the project altogether before giving it a chance to grow. (Yep! That too.)

But don’t give up just yet. Your novel-in-progress can be saved. In Writer’s Digest webinar, Self-editing Techniques That Work, publishing experts Marie Lamba and Cari Lamba offer some tips for making sure you finish that first draft.

* Think of the first draft as a brain dump. Here’s your opportunity to pour all those scenes and plot twists stored inside your head onto the page. The whole point of the first draft is to sort through your story ideas to see which ones work. Consider it a literary experiment to see how all the pieces will work together as a cohesive unit.

* Understand that the first draft is never perfect. Much of what you put down on the page will be garbage, BUT also recognize that some of it will be valuable. Don’t be tempted to throw any of it out – at least not until you finish writing the whole thing. That will be your reward for finishing.

* Write as if no one will ever see it. Chances are the first draft won’t be very good. Who cares if no one else sees it? Instead, enjoy the process of creating your story, of seeing your characters come alive on the page. Don’t stop writing until you write the words “The End” on the page. Refrain from re-reading what you’ve written. You might be tempted to edit those sections, which only slows down your progress. Or you might decide you don’t like the story, feel discouraged, and abort it altogether. Keep writing until you get to the end of the story.

* Stop trying to write and edit at the same time. Writing is governed by the right side of the brain, the creative side, while editing and other analytical skills are governed by the left side of the brain. They generally do not operate simultaneously. Editing as you write slows you down and prevents you from getting to the end, your primary goal. It also takes your focus away from the creative process. Stay focused on writing the first draft, and you’ll get to the end sooner rather than later. There’s always time to edit later.

* Do only the lightest of editing. Okay, this might seem to contradict the tip #3. There is one exception. Do light editing only if it helps move the story forward. Better yet, just make a notation in the margin of the changes you want to make, then edit that section later.

* Have an end scene in mind. Before you start writing that first draft, visualize or sketch out what the final scene will be. Then begin writing toward that ending. Or write a draft of that final scene in its entirety (with the understanding that you’ll probably have to revise it later). Either way, you’ll have something to work toward.

* Write a book jacket summary of the novel. Before writing the first draft, try writing a summary of the novel as if it will appear on the inside flap of the book cover. The summary acts the same way the end scene does, by providing you with a picture of how the story will progress.

* Remember, you’re not alone. Every author has experienced first draft-itis, no matter how experienced they are and no matter if they’ve been published before or not. If they all managed to overcome these obstacles, you can too.

When you are done writing the first draft, congratulate yourself. You put in some hard work and a lot of hours of writing. Savor your victory, but remember, there’s more work to do. Don’t jump back into your novel right away. Set it aside for several weeks at least, to give it a chance to cool off. That time away from your novel will give you a chance to catch your breath, rest your brain, and shift from right side thinking (creativity) to left side thinking (analytical). Then when you’re ready – at least several weeks – you can begin to tackle the revision process.

Working on the first draft of a novel is hard work. It’s like a practice run for a marathon. Pace yourself, and keep writing. Before you know it, you’ll be writing “The End” in no time.

Tired of Staring at a Blank Page? Begin Writing with a Story Starter

blank paper with pen and coffee cup on wood table
Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Staring at a blank page is one of the scariest experiences for a writer, no matter how much experience they have. It’s one of the most common objections people have about starting a regular writing practice. “I don’t know what to write about!” they cry.

Story starters can help you fill that blank page. Story starters are word games and activities to help you generate story ideas. Not only are they great at helping you flex your creative muscles but they can also prompt you to look at events in your life in unexpected ways. Most important, story starters can help you stay motivated whenever you feel stuck or want to take a break from your current work-in-progress.

So the next time you find yourself staring at a blank page, try one of these starter activities to help you fill that page with prose.

1. Writing prompts. Perhaps the most popular story starter is the writing prompt. As the term says, a writing prompt poses questions or fill-in-the-blank statements to stir your imagination. For example, “Whenever it rains, I like to…..” Or “If you won the lottery, what would you do with your winnings?” There are entire books devoted to writing prompts or you can find them on sites like Writer’s Digest, StoryaDay.org and Self-Publishing.com. Or you can revisit my previous post about writing prompts here.

2. Word lists and associations. This technique was popularized by author Ray Bradbury who often used it to brainstorm story ideas whenever he felt stuck. First thing in the morning, Bradbury would jot down whatever words came to mind. Then he’d look at whatever connections they made to each other, or in some cases, how they prompted a memory. By combining some of the word associations, he was able to form the basis for a story.

3. Dreams. If you are an active dreamer, I hope you keep a notebook at your bedside to jot them down. That way you can remember them later. The longer you wait to write it down, the more likely you will forget important details. Dreams have a way of revealing issues we’re dealing with in our lives, sometimes when we don’t realize we’re experiencing them. Maybe you felt yourself falling helplessly in a dream, or you were being chased by an unknown being. Try to capture that scene as well as your emotional response. You never know when dreams can serve as the premise for a story or a scene in a larger work.

4. Visuals, such as artwork or photographs. Is there a painting, sculpture or photograph that moves you or inspires you? What do you see in that image? Each piece of work conveys different meanings to different people, so what you see in a painting will differ from what your friend sees. The next time you see a visual that moves you, try to write a story about that image or about the artist. What do you think inspired them to create this piece?

5. Maps. Lay out a world map on your desk, or find a globe. Then close your eyes and let your finger drop down to a place on the map or the globe. Wherever it lands is the backdrop for your next story. Imagine what it’s like to travel there, or create a character who is from that region. Maps can guide you to a story set in faraway places.

6. The news. You can’t escape what is happening in the news these days. Current events and TV news programs are filled with interviews with experts, personal profiles and events. They can look at one story from different angles. Perhaps someone in the news provides inspiration for a character in your latest short story, or a news feature can spark fresh story lines you might not have considered.

7. First line game. Think of a first line of a story, then keep writing to see where the story takes you. Or for an added challenge, find a first line from any novel you choose, then create your own different story from that first line.

8. Dictionary word game. For this activity, all you need is every writer’s best friend – the dictionary. Open the book to any page, close your eyes, then with your finger point to a word on that page. Then open your eyes and see what word your finger fell on. Does that word conjure any images in your head? If that word doesn’t work, scroll up and down the page for another word that strikes your fancy. The important thing to remember is that the word should somehow resonate with you, conjure up images that have meaning to you. For example, perhaps the word you settle on is “cantankerous”. What image comes to mind? Perhaps it’s the image of an elderly uncle whose gruff manner frightened you as a child?

9. Favorite object. Do you have a favorite object that has special meaning to you? Perhaps it’s a piece of jewelry you own, a book you’ve read, or an ornament you picked up on your travels. Perhaps you owned something that is missing or broken. Describe the object and explain why it meant so much to you.

10. Observations. Look around you and describe what you see. It could be a cat sleeping on your desk while you work. It could be a person you see on the street who started digging around a nearby dumpster looking for food, or a doorman in front of an apartment building who smiles and says hello to everyone walking by. Just jot down what you see, what they are wearing, what they are doing. Simply observing the world around you can spark a scene or short story.

With so many story starters to work with, you won’t have to search hard for stories.

Writing a Novel Takes Practice

close up photo of gray typewriter
Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

At a panel discussion I attended several months ago, one of the panelists described how she had a practice novel before ever getting published. She had been toiling on this particular story for months before deciding it wasn’t working. So she tucked it away into a drawer and began working on another novel, which eventually got published.

Up until that day, I had never heard of a practice novel. In that moment, I realized that one or two of the manuscripts I had been working on were most likely practice novels.

For the uninitiated, practice novels are written manuscripts that usually never get published. They serve to help you learn how to craft a story in novel form and work out different story ideas and angles. “Chances are the successful first novel is the one that was published, not the first one written,” writes author Donna Cook on her blog.

Think of a practice novel as the warm up concert act before the headliner hits the stage.

Tackling a novel is hard work, and not everyone is cut out for it. Writing a practice novel can lay the groundwork for future success, while helping you work out the kinks of your writing process. If you harbor any doubts or have any question about your abilities, the practice novel can usually answer them.

Here are several ways that practice novels can help your writing.

Practice novels are ideal for beginning writers. While many first-time published authors have previous writing experience, and perhaps have earned a degree from an MFA program, most beginning writers are starting to figure out how to write a novel. Practice novels help you learn the art of storytelling – from plot structure, dialogue, character development, even sentence structure. You learn as you go along, by learning from mistakes, picking up helpful tips from other writers, or by taking occasional workshops. It’s a piecemeal process, and a lengthy one. Even after spending several years working on a manuscript, off and on between other projects, that time is not wasted because you are continually honing your craft.

Practice novels help you gain insights about yourself. As you write each day, you learn how to set goals for yourself and solve storytelling problems. You pay more attention to how you think and how you feel. You may pay more attention to conversations around you, observe how you interact with others, and examine scenery with an eye for color and detail. Through your characters, you learn what makes people tick. Practice novels help you see your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and help you determine if you have what it takes to pursue this strange ambition. Novel writing isn’t for everyone, but a practice novel can tell you if this path is right for you.

Practice novels can help you test out different genres. If you read a variety of genres, it’s only natural that you want to experiment with each of those styles. Perhaps you’re a fan of both romantic suspense and mystery/thrillers, for example. While the two share common elements, there are also differences. You might experiment with both of them, but find through practice that writing a thriller fits your writing style better. Practice novels can help you figure out which genre best suits your writing style and whether your story idea has wheels.

Practice novels may never get published, but parts of it can be – later. It’s rare that the practice novel manuscript gets published at all. There are a few exceptions, such as Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, which was written before To Kill a Mockingbird but published many years later. Most readers and critics agree it wasn’t nearly as prolific as Mockingbird. While most practice novels never see the light of day, some can be utilized in bits and pieces. For example, author Anne Allen, used pieces of her practice novel for another one she wrote 15 years later. Likewise, you may decide that some of the scenes and characters from your first unpublished manuscript are worth saving for the purpose of using in other works. The work you’ve done on a practice novel is never wasted when parts of it can be used in future works.

Practice novels can help you stick to a regular writing practice. When you know you are working toward a specific goal, like completing a novel, it’s much easier to write every day. It’s also much easier to find time to write, no matter how busy you are, because you are immersed in your work-in-progress.

Instead of practice novels, try writing short stories. Many people find the prospect of writing a novel daunting, like climbing a mountain when you’ve never climbed before. Sometimes it’s easier to start with a smaller project, like a short story, which can provide valuable storytelling skills, like plot, character development, and pacing, according to The Writing Cooperative. Further, if you decide to send out that short story to an editor or critique group, you’ll likely get feedback faster. People may be more inclined to review a 20-page manuscript than a 200-page novel. With speedier turnaround time, you’ll learn sooner rather than later whether your work is any good, and what you may need to do to improve it.

Practice novels require a lot of time, effort and patience, but that time is never wasted. Each hour you put into your practice novel is time well spent learning about crafting stories. Even if your practice novel never gets published, just completing one is worth celebrating.

 

What You Can Learn by Re-Reading Past Writing

 

blackboard chalk chalkboard concept
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Most writers I know are reluctant to go back in time to read things they wrote a long time ago. I don’t usually like to do that either. I figure I’ve already looked at that piece so many times and completed so many editing passes, that by the time it gets published, I’m sick of looking at it. I’m so relieved when I can finally move on to the next project that I gladly put it out of my mind.

So why are writers reluctant to re-read old published works (or in the case of unpublished writers, completed or semi-completed works)?

Perhaps they fear that they won’t like what they read, that it will confirm their suspicions that they are indeed a bad writer. Or maybe it’s a different kind of feeling – that the work is better than they imagined — or at least it will be once they tweak it here and there.

Author Adam O’Fallon Price writes in The Millions:

“A writer could go through their whole life accumulating work and publications without ever, in earnest, going back and looking at what they’ve done with a reader’s eye. And if you never revisit your old work, you may never fully understand how, or if, you’ve changed as an artist and person.”

I bring this subject up because I’ve spent the past couple of weeks re-reading unpublished essays and half-completed manuscripts that were hidden in my desk drawer. Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours re-reading the first three chapters of a romance novel I started writing a couple of summers ago which I set aside to pursue other projects. I thought I was done with that romance novel. After reading it, now I’m not so sure.

I look at these pieces now, and I’m amazed at what I’ve accomplished. Even old blog posts from several years ago and magazine features I’ve written for a client give me a boost of confidence.

With so much time passed, I can look at each of those pieces with a clear head and an objective eye. What have I learned from this practice?

I’ve learned that I’m a pretty good writer. That my magazine client thinks I’m proficient enough to publish my work. That my blog posts are clearly written and provide practical advice to help my writing peers. That even if I never get that romance novel published, I can be proud of my accomplishment.

Likewise, what can you learn by going back and re-reading what you’ve written long ago? I’m not talking about your current work-in-progress, or the essay you finished last week. I’m talking about writing from a year ago, five years ago, or even things you wrote in college.

How can re-reading your old works benefit your writing today? Here are a few reasons.

  • It can help you see how far you’ve come as a writer. The person who wrote that essay in college is not the same person who would write it today. You’ve matured as a person since then and perhaps you’ve learned more about the topic you wrote about. Perhaps as you gained more knowledge, you’ve changed your stance on that issue.

    Your writing skills are likely better now too, especially if you’ve been writing consistently or have taken writing classes. You may have started out with humble beginnings, but you can see that you’re a better writer now than you were then.

  • It can help you realize that you still have much to learn about the writing process. HealthWriterHub suggests reviewing old emails and projects so you can see recurring mistakes and bad habits. With so much time that has passed, it will be easier to spot those errors and fix them in your current writing. It’s also important to note your strengths, not just your weaknesses, so you can continue to improve.
  • Re-reading past works can affirm in your own mind that you are a good writer. By putting time and distance between yourself and a past work, you can review it as a reader would. Perhaps you realize your work isn’t as lousy as you feared it might be, and that there are many redeemable qualities to your writing that you can still build on for the future.

    Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, says re-reading old works gives you a chance to savor your accomplishments, and it offers a list of questions to keep in mind when you review them. For example, would you write it differently now? What surprised you about the text? Did the voice sound authentic? By answering these questions, you can see ways that you can improve your writing.

  • You may notice opportunities for re-writing that old piece. You might re-read something from long ago and decide there are nuggets of good writing there. Perhaps you know more about the subject now to give it more substance. Or through your life experience, you can provide a different perspective. With the new knowledge and experience, you can bring added dimension to that piece that you did not have before.
  • You can decide if that older piece is worthy of being part of your portfolio. If it’s better than you remembered, you might decide to show it to prospective clients, or maybe just hang onto for your own self-enjoyment. Even if it isn’t the most current work or your best, it might be worth keeping just in case a future client or employer wants to see an example of different types of writing. You never know.

So the next time you’re tempted to toss out old stories, essays and written works from a decade ago, think again. They may still provide value to your writing experience.

Tips for Participating in Reading Challenges

woman reading harry potter book
Photo by Dids on Pexels.com

At the start of the year, I wrote a post about my annual reading challenge. The challenge is fairly simple: to read a diverse selection of books up to 26 books, or one book every two weeks. The challenge contains a mix of book choices from genres (romance, mystery, historical fiction) to prompts (a book with a person’s name in the title, a book set in your hometown, a book with a one-word title, etc.).

My goal for the year is 32 books, however, and so far, I have completed 10. I’m well on my way to reaching my numerical goal.

But doing this challenge isn’t about the quantity of books. It’s about expanding my reading knowledge and being accountable for continuing to read throughout the year. No, I do not feel pressure to meet my number goal, and I don’t race through books to check it off my list. If I do race through a book, it’s usually because it’s a fast-paced thriller that is hard to put down.

Opponents of reading challenges say they are too much like homework assignments. I view them more like a game, a scavenger hunt where you’re given clues to find certain items. In this case, book titles that fit a particular description. Others say they don’t want to feel pressure to reach reading goals, even though they can determine what those goals should be.

Search the Internet and you’ll find numerous reading challenges, such as Popsugar, Goodreads or this one at Booklist Queen. If these sites don’t fit your reading goals, you can always create your own. For ideas on how to do that, check out Bookriot’s DIY Reading Challenge. There are different approaches to doing reading challenges that have nothing to do with a set quantity.

Maybe you love mysteries, but want to explore other mystery authors. Choose to read one book each month from a mystery author you’ve never read before. Or choose ten places you’ve never been to before, and choose 10 books that take place in those locations.

You get the idea. That’s the fun part of reading challenges.

If you have done a reading challenge, you know already how it can improve your reading. Here are a few other benefits of doing reading challenges:

— It gets you out of your comfort zone so you’re not reading the same author or genre all the time, and allows you to choose books that you wouldn’t normally read.
— It adds a fun element to reading, much like a scavenger hunt. It’s a game, although there are no set prizes.
— It’s a different way to enjoy reading. It’s really less about the quantity of books and more about enhancing the experience. You can still focus on quality books and you can still take your time reading them. It’s about making a commitment to read more books and read different styles.
— It makes you accountable. A reading challenge gives you a plan for reading more books. Some people perform better if they have a plan in place.
— It gives you a chance to make a dent in your TBR bookshelf.

Meanwhile, opponents of reading challenges cite several objections:
— Having a target goal puts pressure on you to perform at a level you may not ready for or at a faster pace than you’re used to.
— The challenge can seem like a chore, like homework. It’s something you have to do, rather than something you want to do.
— You may find yourself racing through books just to meet your target goal rather than going at a slower pace that allows you to enjoy the book.
— In a challenge with prompts, you may have to do some research to find some of the more obscure titles. It may take time to find a book that takes place in Asia, for instance, or a book published the year you were born. That can be more work than you are willing to put into it.
— Setting reading goals might ruin your enjoyment of the activity.

While some of these objections have some merit, I find that the benefits often outweigh the downsides. In the four years I’ve done this challenge, I can’t tell you how many new authors I’ve discovered, and different genres that I never would have read.

According to an article in Atlantic magazine, people who enjoyed reading challenges the most didn’t seem to care if they finished them or not. They didn’t care if they hit their target of 50 books. If their goal was to read more books and having a target goal helped them achieve that, they were satisfied with the outcome.

If you’re intrigued by reading challenges, here are a few helpful tips for participating in them:

— Set a small goal to start. Maybe choose five books by minority authors, or five nonfiction books if you’re used to reading fiction. Or do a summer reading challenge – one book on a selected topic for June, July and August.
— You don’t have to follow the established reading challenges like Goodreads if it doesn’t fit your reading goals.
— Keep track of your accomplishments. Keep a small notebook or a spreadsheet, and jot down what you read.
— Don’t worry about quantity. If setting a number goal scares you, don’t worry about it. Focus on the diversity or quality of books instead.
— Don’t overthink the challenge. Challenges exist to help you become a better reader. If you set a goal for reading 10 non-fiction books and you only read seven, don’t beat yourself up over it.
— Don’t take it too seriously. Reading challenges are meant to be fun ways to discover new authors and new genres.
— Reward yourself. While most challenges don’t offer prizes, you can always reward yourself when you complete your challenge.

Remember, you are in control of your reading challenge. You determine how many books you want to read, the types of books you want to read and how much time you’re willing to spend reading them. No one is forcing you to finish the challenge. But imagine how good you’ll feel about yourself when you do.

Sticking to a Writing Routine During the COVID-19 Pandemic

person holding silver retractable pen in white ruled book
Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

As our world grapples with the global COVID-19 virus, many writers may be finding it difficult to stick to any kind of routine to maintain their writing practice. Perhaps anxiety and fear about the virus and economic future has paralyzed you and you can’t seem to find the energy to lift a pen to your paper. Or perhaps other responsibilities are calling your attention, such as taking care of your family, doing grocery shopping, or cleaning your house. Naturally, writing takes a back seat.

We’re living in strange times where new rules of self-isolation and social distancing govern our daily lives. But that doesn’t mean your writing has to suffer. You just have to adapt by creating a new writing routine.

One option is to cut back on the hours you spend writing or write only on certain days. Another option is to keep a small notebook (which you should already be doing for your writing) and take notes when the mood strikes or if you notice something unusual in your everyday world. Most important, take note of what you are thinking and feeling at that moment to document what is happening during this time. You never know when you can turn those notes into a publishable story that can be passed on to future generations.

At times like these, writing brings more value to our lives than we ever imagined. Here’s why it’s still important to stick to a writing routine.

Writing forces you to turn off the TV and social media. Sometimes too much information can be more harmful than helpful. Tuning in to news stories about the COVID 19 virus can make you feel crazy, depressed and anxious. Turn it all off, and turn to your writing to escape the harsh surreal world we are all living through these days. Writing takes your mind off the problems of the outside world and focus on the problems of your inside world, the world of your characters. At least you know you have control of that story’s outcome.

Writing allows you to document this unprecedented time in our lives – for history’s sake. Herbert Braun, a history professor at the University of Virginia, has instructed his students to record their daily lives during this pandemic crisis, so they can look upon what they wrote many years from now to see how their lives were changed. “The mantra of our course is ‘Write it down.’ When you do, much of your life and who you are will be different than if you don’t,” he explains. This global experience is bound to change all of us but whether for better or worse, remains to be seen. By writing down your thoughts and experiences every day, you can see how you evolve as a person.

A writing routine gives you control over personal circumstances. We can’t control this disease, can’t slow down its progress or how it affects so many people. But we can focus on one thing that we do have control over – our writing.

A writing routine takes advantage of self-isolation. Many writers are natural self-isolators and have been doing so for some time. It’s the only way we can get our writing done. But for many others who have lost jobs or clients because of the virus, or who are working from home, self-isolation is a brand new experience, unlike anything they’ve ever had before. Self-isolation is like being stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean with nothing to steer it or a map to know which direction to go. Instead of seeing self-isolation as a punishment, view it as a gift. If you have always wanted to write but complained you never have time, you have no more excuses. You’ve got the time now, so use it to your advantage.

A writing routine allows you to daydream and plan your next work. If you’re simply not feeling up to writing today, then don’t write. Instead, use the time to think, plan and daydream about the story you are currently writing, or want to write. You may not be physically putting pen to paper, but you can still “write” a story – inside your head, says professional fiction editor Jim Dempsey at his Writing Therapy blog. You can still work out plots, dialogue and characters even as you walk your dog or wash dishes. Even when you’re not physically writing, you’re doing so unconsciously – by noticing the world around you, Dempsey says. Then when you feel ready, you can sit down and write in a flurry because you’ve already worked out situations in your head.

Writing encourages you to stay connected to your support group. When the going really gets tough, reach out to your support system. We might all be separated from one another physically, but we can still stay connected through technology. Visit them through Skype, set up a group chat on Zoom, or simply pick up the phone and call someone. Tell them what you’re having trouble with in your writing and ask for their guidance. Even while you are practicing social distancing with them, you can still stay connected – through your writing.

While it may be difficult to keep writing during such a troubling period in our lives, writing every day, even for only ten minutes or so, can give you the time and space you need to keep making progress on your current work. Even better, writing can help you make sense of what you’re experiencing.

For more tips for writing during this COVD-19 pandemic, check out this article on Contently.

Stay home and stay safe.