Nine Ways You Can Benefit from a Consistent Writing Practice

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As I’ve developed my writing practice over the years, I’ve noticed that my writing has improved significantly, and my approach to storytelling has changed. I’m finding my writing voice, and I think that’s due to my willingness to experiment with different techniques and reading more books from different genres and authors. My writing practice has also helped me build a collection of work, whether published or not, that I can be proud of.

Ask any writer about how writing has improved their lives, and they will tell you all sorts of stories similar to my own. Here are examples by Jeff Goins and Darius Foroux. Below are some of the ways that a regular writing practice can benefit you.  

* A writing practice helps you build confidence in your abilities. If you’re just starting a writing practice, I advise you to start small. Start with 100 words, then after a week or two, increase your word count to 250 words. Then maybe after another couple of weeks, you can work your way up to larger pieces. As you reach each goal, you gain confidence in yourself and you feel ready to tackle larger pieces.    

* A writing practice allows you to experiment with different genres. You may not know how to write an essay or short story, but a writing practice gives you the space to experiment. Until you try to write in a certain style, you won’t know what you’re capable of. With each small success, you gain confidence in your abilities.

* A writing practice helps you find your voice.
When you begin to write, you may be unsure what your writing voice sounds like to your own ears, or what it feels like within you. It may be tempting to copy the writing voice of a favorite author. But that likely won’t feel authentic, and it certainly won’t appear authentic to readers. Writing every day, even for just 15 minutes, helps you tune into your own thoughts, ideas and memories. You become more in tune to yourself. With time and practice, your voice emerges on the page.

* A writing practice helps you improve technical skills, such as grammar and punctuation. The more you write and read, and the more you get feedback about your writing, the more your writing will improve. According to the Grammarphile blog, as you write, you naturally learn more about the mechanics of writing – and reading – and you develop a stronger vocabulary. Once you know the rules of grammar and punctuation, you know when it’s okay to break those rules when it’s appropriate for your story.

* A writing practice improves your mental and emotional well-being. By writing, you release emotional burdens you may not have known you were carrying. By writing about emotional issues, you begin to make sense of them. While the experience may never leave you entirely, the writing process serves as a vital outlet for healing.

* A writing practice clarifies your thought processes. When you begin to write about a topic, especially one you know very little about, your thoughts may start out in a confused jumble of words. As you continue to write, however, those thoughts seem to straighten out, the fog lifts and you can express your beliefs and ideas more clearly. Again, it may not happen overnight. It may take several sessions of writing, but your thoughts eventually gain clarity.

* A writing practice opens a path to greater creative self-expression. This benefit seems obvious. Not only do you gain clarity of your thoughts, you’re able to delve into more creative ways of expressing those ideas. The more your write, the more your mind works to find different phrasing and rhythms in your words that help you tell your story.

* The writing process gets easier with time. I find that the more I write, the more easily words begin to flow as soon as I put a pen to paper. Writing becomes less forced, and I’m able to accomplish more in less time. Don’t get me wrong. Writing will always be difficult, but the process seems to get easier over time as you continue to work at developing your craft. The key is consistency.

* A writing practice turns your daily output into potential projects. Judy Reeves, author of A Writer’s Book of Days, says a writing practice can result in beginnings, middles and endings of writing projects you didn’t know you had within you. When you begin writing, you may be so focused on putting words down on the page that you don’t see the potential of the scene you’ve just written until you see its connection to other scenes you’ve written previously. 

With so many potential benefits to enjoy, why wouldn’t you want to start a writing practice?

What benefits have you received from your regular writing practice?

Update Your Reference Library With These Writing and Creativity Books

As writers, it’s important to keep up with our reading, especially when that reading pertains to the writing craft. Sometimes you need to read about writing to motivate you to keep writing, experiment with a different writing style or improve your skills. There’s always something new to learn by reading about other writers’ experiences of their writing journey that you can adapt to your own situation.

The three most important books I keep on my shelf is a dictionary, a thesaurus and the classic The Elements of Editing by Strunk and White. In addition, I have the AP Stylebook for when I write magazine articles.

If you want to add to your library, or you’re just starting one, there are numerous other books that are worthy of adding to your collection.

Below is my list of recommended reading. Admittedly, I’ve only read half of them. The other half are either currently on my bookshelf waiting to be read or on my “to be acquired” list because they were recommended by other writers.

What about you? Do you have a favorite book about writing that you like to refer to over and over?

1. On Writing by Stephen King. You’ll find King’s book on numerous recommended lists, and it’s easy to see why. Part memoir and part writing toolbox, there are so many practical tips that makes it easy to jump into a regular writing practice. I appreciated his honesty about the writing life – it’s not always easy and you’ll find bumps along the way.

2. Crafting the Personal Essay by Dinty W. Moore. If you want to start writing personal essays, this is a must-read book. Moore breaks down the art and craft of essay writing in simple, easy-to-understand ways. He covers different types of essay writing too – food, travel, childhood experiences, etc. Moore, by the way, is editor of Brevity’s Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction.

3. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. If you prefer a little humor with your writing advice, you’ll enjoy Lamott’s personal odyssey in writing. She covers everything from getting started to joining writer’s groups and attending conferences. You’ll learn a thing or two as you laugh.

4. Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. The best part of Bradbury’s book is his description of how he comes up with story ideas, which is by word associations. If you’re tired of doing writing prompts, Bradbury’s approach might be worth a try.

5. Writing from the Heart by Nancy Aronie. While this title is not as well-known as others on this list, it is a worthwhile read. Her goal is to create a safe environment for people to write. Not everyone finds the writing process easy, and Aronie takes you through the process step by step so you don’t feel so intimidated.

6. Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life by Gregg Levoy. While not a book about writing, it is about finding your calling. If you believe that writing is your calling, then this is a must-read to help you get over any fears and self-esteem issues that may be holding you back from accomplishing your goals. Levoy is not only a terrific story teller, he relies on his personal experience and the experiences of other people to show how it is possible to live an authentic life. I read Levoy’s book twenty years ago, and I still go back to read sections that resonate with me.

7. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Many writers point to Cameron’s book as the one that got them started writing. She is most known for her freewriting exercise: writing three pages non-stop first thing in the morning. The exercise is intended to help you remove the toxic thoughts and emotions that build up in your mind and body. Once you release those thoughts, your mind is free to create. If you’ve already read The Artist’s Way, check out Cameron’s follow up, The Right to Write.

8. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. This book has appeared on numerous reading lists and it’s been on my to-read list for a couple of decades. According to the book summary, Goldberg believes that “writing is a practice that helps writers comprehend the value of their lives.” Included are chapters about using verbs, listening, writing first thoughts (writing nonstop, keeping your pen on the page and not crossing anything out), and overcoming self-doubt.

9. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp. Tharp may have been a famous dancer and choreographer, but she also knew a thing or two about tapping into one’s own creativity. She describes the empty space of the dance floor (or the blank page) as the starting point for creativity. If you’re looking to start writing or creating on a regular basis, Tharp’s book may help you get past “writer’s block.”

10. On Being Stuck: Tapping into the Creative Power of Writer’s Block by Laraine Herring. Speaking of writer’s block and getting stuck, Herring’s book explores the possibilities that writer’s block holds. She speaks about using these sticking points to your advantage rather than getting stymied by the creative process. Herring has written another book worth checking out, Writing Begins with the Breath.

11. The Successful Author Mindset: A Handbook for Surviving the Writer’s Journey by Joanna Penn. I always thought Penn had the perfect name for a writer. While I have not read this book, I have read her The Creative Penn blog on occasion, which is chock full of helpful tools and advice for developing a successful mindset for your writing career.

12. The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work by Marie Arana. I only recently came across this title. I’ve always found it intriguing how other writers begin their writing journey. We all can learn something from their experiences.

I hope you find these titles helpful. As you continue your writing journey, it helps to pause to read about the experiences of other writers, if only to inspire you to keep writing.

Tips for Overcoming Blank Page Syndrome

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It can be scary and intimidating to start something new, especially a new writing project. What winds up happening is you stare at the blank page, suddenly feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of it all. Many writers are afraid they won’t be able to fill the page with the right words to tell their story. Others fear not having an interesting story to tell. What if it all comes out wrong?

But you can take comfort in the fact that many writers and creatives have faced blank pages (or empty computer screens) for centuries, and they somehow manage to overcome their fear of it.

In her book The Creative Habit, choreographer and dancer Twyla Tharp writes: “The blank space can be humbling. But I’ve faced it my whole professional life. It’s my job. It’s also my calling. Bottom line: filling this empty space constitutes my identity.”

Though Tharp writes from a dancer’s perspective, what she says resonates with many writers. It’s our job and our calling to fill up empty spaces with our creativity, whether that comes in the form of words, dancing, or musical notes. In her mind, the empty space is not to be feared. It’s simply the starting point of the creative process.

When you begin to view the blank page as the starting point of your creative project, then you are less likely to feel intimidated by it. Rather than fearing it, writers should embrace it. The blank page represents endless possibilities for creation. It’s a positive energy, not a negative one. Don’t let the blank page weigh you down. Embrace it as an old friend, one who supports you in your creative endeavors.

The experts at Masterclass define blank page syndrome as writer’s block. So naturally, the best way to deal with blank page syndrome is the same way you do for writer’s block. There are several reasons writers feel intimidated when they face blank pages.

1. Writers fear exposing too much of themselves. It’s always scary to put yourself “out there.” Writing is an expression of your identity. Every time you put words down on the page, you are connecting with yourself in some way, whether it’s a memory, a fantasy, a heartache, or a desire. You can’t always hide behind your words. The prospect of revealing parts of yourself frightens writers. But without those deeply felt emotions and personal experiences, writers wouldn’t be the people that they are. Sometimes the only way to deal with the harshest realities of your existence is to write about it.

2. Writers expect perfection from their prose. They want the words to flow on the page in perfect harmony. They want the words to say precisely what they want to say with no mistakes. Writers have a vision of how they want the story to start and end, but when the words come out, all they see is junk. When you expect so much from yourself at the start of the writing project, it can put you in a form of paralysis. You wind up staring at the page instead.

To overcome these unrealistic expectations of perfection, try satisficing it – that’s combining satisfying and sacrifice, according to the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Just put down a reasonable solution to start the ball rolling. Anything will do – notes, phrases, even diagrams. Then make a note to come back and fix it later.

3. Writers fear the endless possibilities that blank pages represent. When you stare at a blank page or screen, you’re faced with endless possibilities for storytelling. Should you write an essay or a short story? Maybe you might try your hand at poetry instead? There are numerous possible ways to fill that empty space.

Some people feel confused and overwhelmed when they consider all the possibilities ahead of them. They feel overwhelmed by the open-ended book facing them. These writers are the type of people who need everything spelled out for them, and they look around for a handbook of sorts with step-by-step instructions on how to navigate those endless possibilities.

Others embrace the future, even though it may look fuzzy and uncertain. They see the future as an adventure, and the world – as wide and mysterious as it is – is something to explore. They welcome the endless possibilities of the blank page because they know that it’s a forum for their creativity. Since they want their creative expression shown in whatever way possible, the blank page doesn’t frighten them.

Which writer do you want to be: the one who welcomes those endless possibilities and sees opportunity in them, or are you the person who needs a guide to show you the way? Do you recognize yourself in either of these scenarios? 

4. Writers lack vision for the end product. Because anything is possible with the blank page, some writers may not have a clear idea what to write. There are so many things they could write about so it’s difficult to know which idea will work best. If you lack vision of your end product, if you have no clue what to write about, step away from the page. Set aside time to brainstorm ideas. Jot down as many of them as you can think of. Use a favorite prompt. I find that the prompt “I remember,” works well for me.

Also try freewriting – writing nonstop for five or ten minutes. You never know what ideas spring forth from that exercise. Once you have a general story idea in mind (or several), you may feel less anxious about the blank page.

Yet another technique shared by Masterclass experts is starting at a different point in your story, such as the middle or the ending. Sometimes it helps to work backward to the beginning when you’re unsure how to begin. The important point is to keep writing. It is only by writing a little every day that you’ll figure out how to overcome that blank page.

The blank page or computer screen doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating. Take Twyla Tharp’s word for it, and welcome the blank page as your friend. See it for that friend who takes your hand and helps you face endless creative possibilities with courage and conviction.

Looking for a New Creative Writing Challenge? Enter a Writing Contest

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Now that the calendar has flipped over into September, it’s time to get serious about your creative writing. While many publications accept submissions throughout the year, there appears to be an uptick in calls for contest submissions after September 1.

If you’ve ever wanted to participate in a writing contest, now might be a good time to take the plunge and get your writing to stand out from the crowd. (Note that with COVID-19, some publications have put their contests on hiatus. Always check the website to confirm, but with the contests I’ve shared below, I’ve already done the leg work for you.)

There are many great reasons to participate in creative writing contests.

* There is the pride of performance, of knowing you’re submitting your best work to be reviewed (which I suppose can be scary as hell too). Just having the courage to submit your work can be a victory in and of itself.

* There’s the chance to win big cash prizes and publication for your work. Many publications I’ve come across are offering cash awards of $1,000 or more with several smaller cash prizes for second and third place.

* There’s the opportunity to gain a wider audience for your writing than you could achieve on your own, including being noticed by editors and literary agents who may be among the judging committee members. Who wouldn’t want to earn that advantage?

* Contests also are a great way to challenge yourself to complete that work-in-progress hidden in your desk drawer, or start a new project in a different genre. Perhaps you’re used to writing creative nonfiction and want to try your hand at writing flash fiction.

Some contests specialize in one kind of writing, such as poetry or fiction. Other publications offer awards in three categories: essay, poems and short fiction. Poets & Writers magazine publishes a comprehensive list of contests, including a nifty calendar with all the submission deadlines.

Below is a very brief roundup of contests taking place this fall, some with deadlines coming up within the next couple of weeks. Hurry and submit your work before these deadlines pass.

QueryLetter.com
Can you write a back cover blurb for a hypothetical novel? In 100 words or less, write a blurb about a non-existent book. Make sure you set the stage for the novel, establish the characters and raise the stakes to make the reader want to read more. One winning entry will receive $500 prize.  Deadline is noon, September 15, 2020.

Writer’s Digest Personal Essay Awards
Writer’s Digest magazine is holding its first ever personal essay contest. In 2,000 words or less, write about any topic or theme. One grand prize winner receives $2,500, a paid trip to Writer’s Digest annual conference, and their essay published in the May/June 2021 issue. Other prizes will also be awarded. Early bird deadline is September 15, 2020; final deadline is October 15, 2020.

Boulevard – Nonfiction contest for emerging writers
Great opportunity for new, emerging writers to have their work published. Essays must be 8,000 words. Winning entry receives $1,000 prize. Deadline is September 30, 2020.

Boulevard – Short fiction contest for emerging writers
Another great opportunity for emerging writers, this time for short fiction. Stories must be 8,000 words. Winning entry receives $1,500 prize. Deadline is December 31, 2020.

Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
Are you dying to write a ghost story?  Does the thought of telling paranormal or supernatural stories send chills down your spine? Then this contest is for you. Ghost Story is looking for short stories with a supernatural or magic realism. 1,500 to 10,000 words. $1,000 prize to the winning entry. Deadline is September 30, 2020.

LitMag
Virginia Woolf Award for Short Fiction
Write a short fiction piece of 3,000 to 8,000 words. First prize is $2,500, plus publication in LitMag and a  review by several literary agents. Deadline is December 31, 2020.

Anton Chekov Award for Flash Fiction
LitMag is also looking for flash fiction. Stories must be 50 to 1,500 words. First prize is $1,250, publication in LitMag and a review by several literary agents. Deadline is November 30, 2020.

ServiceScape Short Story Award
The freelance platform for writers, editors and graphic designers is looking for short stories of 5,000 words or less on any theme or genre. The winning entry receives a $1,000 prize. Deadline is November 29, 2020.

Prose.
Not interested in a contest but still want to challenge yourself? Check out Prose. This site posts numerous writing challenges and prompts to test your skill in writing prose. Most prompts are posted by the community, but others are shared by literary agents and publishing houses looking for new talent. They occasionally post contests, but as of this writing, none were posted.

As always, it’s a good idea to check out past winners before submitting to get an idea of what the publication is looking for.

Good luck, happy writing, and be safe this Labor Day weekend.

Achieve Your Writing Goal in One Year (or Less)

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Have you heard this questions before? “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

I’ve always hated that question in job interviews because I could never answer it without making myself look like a disorganized mess. I would hem and haw, waiting for inspiration to strike me with an appropriate answer before finally settling on a very safe one: “Working here.”

The truth is, I’ve always had difficulty setting and keeping five-year goals because I could never think that far ahead. Too much can happen between this moment and five years from now that could alter my long-term plans, so why bother making any?

These days, my goal-setting is simpler because I focus on short-term goals and I look no further than one year ahead. Instead, I ask myself, “Where do I want to be one year from now?” I figure as long as I take care of the short term goals, the long-term future will take care of itself.

The one-year plan includes several interim goals to measure your progress. I borrow this approach from publishing production schedules, which establishes the publishing date first and then works backward to the starting point of the production cycle. In between, there are deadlines for writing, proofing, artwork and so on.

Think about what you want to accomplish with your writing practice. Where do you see it one year from now? Maybe your vision is to manage a blog. Maybe you want to complete a collection of travel essays. Or maybe you want to write stories from your life to pass onto your grandchildren. Whatever that goal may be, start with your year-end vision, then break it down into smaller, achievable tasks. Those tasks become your interim deadlines. When you know you want to achieve X one year from now, it’s easier to work backward to set the interim deadlines.

I find a good time for these goal-setting sessions is the beginning of the New Year, your birthday, or the beginning of the school year. Those times signify fresh starts when goal setting can help you stay motivated. But any time of year is a good time to make goals for yourself, no matter what you want to achieve with your writing.

To help you with this goal-setting exercise, answer the following questions.

1. Name one thing you would like to achieve in your writing practice one year from now. For example, complete first drafts of 12 childhood memoir essays to be included in a published collection. (Twelve is a random number that I chose based on the calendar months of the year. That equates to one memoir essay each month.)

2. Name one thing you would like to achieve in six months. Perhaps your six-month goal is to review the essays you’ve written so far leading up to your one-year goal. How many essays have you completed toward your year-end goal? Do they need editing? Perhaps your six-month goal is to hire an editor or have someone review the work you’ve done.

3. Name one thing you would like to achieve by the end of three months. Perhaps in three months, you would like to read one or two memoir collections that other people have written to help you understand how it’s done. Or maybe your goal is to write three essays that will be included in your collection.

4. Name one thing you would like to achieve within one month. Your goal could be to write for 30 minutes at least three days a week, or it could be to complete a draft of one essay for your childhood memoir.

5. Name one thing you’d like to achieve within the next two weeks. It could be to evaluate your daily schedule to see what you can change to make room for writing. Or it could be brainstorming ideas for your collection of memoir essays.

By the end of this exercise, you will have set five goals for your writing practice at five different time periods – two weeks, one month, three months, six months, and one year. Make sure they are reasonable, measurable and realistic to achieve. Then review your goals every few months to see how much progress you have made. If you find that you haven’t achieved any of your goals, do not beat yourself up over it. Just modify your goals and start over again.

By developing a one-year plan with smaller goals at interim points, you can stay focused on the tasks at hand while letting the long-term future take care of itself.   

What kind of writing plans do you make for yourself? Are you able to stick to them?

Three Questions Every Writer Should Ask Before Starting a Writing Routine

Novice writers often ask, “How often should I write? And should I write every day?”

Browse the internet and you’ll likely find a variety of responses to these questions. Some responses suggest making time goals, such as one hour a day, while others suggest word goals, such as 500 words. For example, Stephen King in his book “On Writing,” advises new writers to aim for a lofty 1,000 words a day.

To add to the confusion, novice scribes are advised to write every day to achieve consistency with your writing. If you don’t write every day, experts argue, you might lose momentum and motivation. After missing several days, you may never get back to writing.

While their arguments are valid, they may not be practical. Not everyone has time to write every single day because of demanding schedules. Further, the thought of writing every day can be daunting, especially for novice writers who haven’t a clue how to get started. You might say to yourself, “Write every day? I can’t possibly do that! That will take up too much of my day!”

That kind of reasoning assumes that writing is time consuming. But the truth is, writing isn’t nearly as time consuming as we imagine it is. That’s because many of us have built up scenarios in our brain in which we imagine sitting in front of our computer for several hours a day. That scenario might be accurate for well-known authors and professional writers, but not for beginning writers like you and me.

How much time you devote to writing depends on several factors: what you’re schedule allows, whether you’re new to writing, and what you want to achieve with your writing. No two writers will have the same answers. Below are several questions you need to ask yourself before establishing a writing routine.

Question 1: Are you new to writing?

If you’re new to writing, it might be helpful to start with a small goal and work your way up into larger goals as you gain more confidence in your abilities. Set a word goal of 100 words, for example. If after a few days, 100 words is too easy, you can raise the goal to 250 words.

For other writers, a time goal may be a better option, say 15 minutes or 30 minutes. Even five minutes is better than none at all. As you gain more confidence, you can add more time to your sessions, moving from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, for example.

Shannon Ashley at the Post-Grad Survival Guide blog writes that it’s important to achieve consistency with your writing. But how much time and energy you put into it is up to individual writers and what they want to achieve. But it’s not necessary to write every day to achieve that success. It is important if you want to achieve consistency, especially for newer writers.

I recommend setting a small goal of 100 words per session. That is the equivalent of three or four paragraphs, something that is easy to achieve if you write every day. However, if you don’t have time to write every day, you can choose to write two or three times a week or even just weekends. You can still achieve consistency with your writing by committing to writing three days a week.

As you gain more experience, you will learn to write faster and get more writing done in less time. That’s when you can set higher goals for yourself and create more flexible writing schedules.

Question 2: Do you prefer a structured routine or write when you can?

Some writers prefer having a set schedule because they enjoy the structure that it gives them.  Writing every day for a set amount of time or specific word count provides a sense of accomplishment. Just sitting down and writing at the same time every day is an accomplishment in and of itself.

The reality is, there is no set rule that says you have to write every day, writes Ali Luke at WritetoDone blog. It’s simply a goal to work toward. Only you know what is best for you considering your schedule.

On the other hand, some writers with more demanding work schedules may not have a lot of spare time for writing. Or they may simply thrive in unstructured work environments. Sometimes it’s necessary to find time to write wherever you can squeeze it in. For example, you may jot down notes while riding on the bus to work, or cram in a half hour of writing before bedtime. Further, it may not be possible to commit to writing every day. It may be that you are weekend warriors, writing in chunks on Saturday and Sunday.

Knowing which type of person you are – structured or unstructured – can help you decide how to set up your writing routine or whether you should have one at all.

Question 3: What do you want to accomplish with your writing?

If writing is a hobby, then you can be more flexible with your schedule since you are not tied to any deadlines. You can write whenever and wherever you want, and you can make your sessions as short or as long as you want – as your schedule allows. It might be easier to squeeze in writing time before doctor’s appointments and work breaks.

But if your goals are more serious – such as writing an essay or article that you want to have published – then you might need to devote a longer work session to complete it. That’s quiet, uninterrupted time to research, contemplate and prepare your finished piece for an editor. Since it requires greater care, then you will need longer stretches of time to work on it.

The bottom line is this: the more you want to accomplish with your writing, the more time you will devote to your craft. If you love to write, the more time you will make for it. That’s the difference between those who see writing as a casual leisurely pursuit and those who view it as their life’s work.

Best Ideas from the Freelancers Union Conference

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As a follow up to my post last week about virtual conferences, below are some of the best ideas gleaned from the recent Freelancers Union virtual conference. While I’ve heard many of these suggestions in the past, it never hurts to hear them again.

1. Say YES to opportunities. In his keynote speech, activist and suicide survivor Darryl Stinson described how important it is to say yes to opportunities and to life. In one of the best quotes of the conference, Stinson says, “Massive success isn’t dependent on all the tasks you need to do; it’s dependent on the decision you need to make.” That singular decision is whether to say YES to your future. By saying YES, you open yourself up to people and situations that can help you achieve your goals. Saying YES puts you in a positive mindset to embrace opportunities as they come.

2. For better clients, find a niche. If you’re struggling to find quality clients, it might help to focus on a specific industry. Throwing a wider net might attract more clients, but they may not be the type of clients you need to be successful for the long term. There will be haters too – people who don’t understand your business or don’t need your product or service. Not everyone will need your services, and that’s okay. If they aren’t interested, move on. Instead, focus on the clients who do like you and want to do business with you.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. Freelancers may work solo, but it’s still important to surround yourself with a support team, like mentors, colleagues and other freelancers. Join groups on LinkedIn and Facebook who share your interests, and be willing to give advice as much if not more than you receive. You can learn from each other.

4. Be ready to adapt to changing circumstances. It’s during those times that you can experiment and innovate. Some experiments will work out, while others won’t. Don’t be afraid to fail either. Through failure, you can learn something new about yourself and the creative process. You never know if that experimentation might turn into a viable product or service later.

5. Never start with the ask; focus on building relationships with prospects instead. A good place to prospect for clients is through social media. On LinkedIn, for example, you can check the company page for a list of employees, then search for individuals who have job titles that appear to be the person you want to reach. Next, search the person’s profile page to find out their interests and hobbies, if any. Then when you message them, begin a conversation by mentioning your common interest. Always focus on building relationships with potential clients. Offer to help, give advice, share information, recommend someone for a job, etc. Give, give, give and eventually that giving will be returned to you.

6. Build your personal brand that reflects the real you. Branding expert Diane Diaz defines a brand as “a gut feeling that a person has about a product, service, organization or a person.” When you build your brand, think about how you want to be perceived by potential clients. Then review all your social media channels to see if your outgoing message accurately reflects who you really want others to see. The right message will attract the best individuals and organizations that can help you achieve your goals.

7. Give yourself permission to brag. Diaz also says it’s important to tell others what you have achieved. Most women have been brought up to downplay their accomplishments. But bragging is perfectly okay if it’s done with honesty, Diaz says. “It’s not bragging if you are honest about what you bring to the table.” 

8. Maintain an “I am awesome” file. Collect thank-you notes, press clippings, announcements, memos from bosses and anything else from past employers and clients. Then whenever you feel discouraged, browse through them to remind yourself of what you have already accomplished and that you are appreciated.

9. Practice the art of “Act as if…” This exercise is intended to put your into a more positive frame of mind and erase any feelings of lack. The concept is simple: You act as if you already are the person you want to become, then you will eventually feel that way. If you lack confidence, for example, act as if you are confident. In time, you will begin to feel confident. Act as if you have already achieved the success you want, then you will feel successful. If you act it first, you will eventually become it.

What is the best idea you’ve ever received from a conference?

WordPress users, have you registered for WordPress.com Growth Summit on August 11-12? If you want to grow your blog business, this is a can’t-miss event. (Yes, I will be there too. No, I do not work for WordPress.com, but I thought this was worth passing along in light of my topic today.)

Start a Writing Practice — No Matter What Age You Are

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If you ever thought you were too old to begin writing, whether for business or pleasure, guess again. Consider these late-blooming authors:

* Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing when she was in her 40s. Her first book Little House in the Big Woods was published nearly 20 years later.

* Harriet Doerr was 74 when her first novel, Stones of Ibarra, was published.

* Frank McCourt was 66 years old when his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, was published.

* English author Daniel Defoe was almost 60 when he finished writing Robinson Crusoe.

* Nora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, didn’t begin writing until she was in her 40s.

There are numerous other authors who did not get published or begin writing until they were in their 40s or older – proof that you don’t have to be a young spring chicken to write. (Here’s another great list of women writers who were late bloomers.)

In fact, it may be more advantageous to start a writing practice later in life rather than earlier.  For one, you have the benefit of life experience. By the time you reach your forties and fifties, you’ve acquired plenty of life experience – new jobs and losses, moving to a new city perhaps, starting a family, starting a business, health crises, etc. You’re able to look back at your experiences to learn from life’s lessons. All you really need to write is the desire and a willingness to commit to it.

As I get older (and hopefully wiser), I’ve come to the conclusion that our lives are divided into two halves. The first half is all about acquiring knowledge, skills and experience. We’re students of life. During the second half of our lives – after age 45 or 50 or so – we look for opportunities to share what we’ve learned with others. We become teachers.

So it makes sense that many older adults rediscover writing as a way to express themselves while sharing their lifetime of knowledge and skills. Writing is the path to teach others about what they’ve learned on their life’s journey.

Writing also challenges you mentally, and at times, emotionally. It keeps your brain active which is important to ward off dementia. By writing, you become more aware of people and events around you too. You notice things more – like the bright colors of flowers, the sharp sweet smell of coffee in the morning, the way someone speaks. You pay more attention to these details because your writing thrives on these types of details.

If you are over age 50 and you’re new to writing, here are a few tips for starting a writing practice. Of course, many of these tips are appropriate no matter what age you are. But I think they are particularly helpful for older writers.

* Be open to learning new things. Attending workshops and classes can help you develop new skills and gain an understanding of the writing process. You’ll meet other people just like you who are starting their writing journey. You’ll have a lot to talk about with them – and a lot to write about afterwards.

* Don’t overlook your life experience. You bring a lot to the table by virtue of your life experience. When it comes to writing, age is an advantage, not a flaw. Write about those experiences that made a difference in your life. Share your life story with others so they can learn from you. Your personal experience is valuable, giving your writing added depth and perspective.

* Start small and work your way into bigger projects. Especially if you’re just starting a writing habit, begin by writing shorter pieces. Even writing in your journal counts. Aim for 100 or 200 words to start, then as you get into a rhythm, you can extend yourself to 500 words or more (if your schedule allows).

You may find that starting with shorter pieces is easier because once you complete them, you feel a greater sense of accomplishment. This approach serves two purposes: it allows you to  test out story concepts in shorter formats to see if they’re viable, and it helps you refine your writing technique for specific genres. Don’t be afraid to start small.

* Pay attention to the world around you. When you begin a writing practice, you may notice events and people around you more keenly. You may pay more attention to little details – the way a woman’s dress moves when she walks down the street, the smell of onions and garlic as you pass an Italian restaurant, or the cheerful chirping of birds outside your window at five in the morning. Writing gives you a renewed appreciation for life, one you appreciate even more as you get older.

* Make an appointment with yourself to write. Put the appointment in your calendar. If you’re good about keeping appointments, you’ll likely be as vigilant about keeping up with your writing practice.  

* Create a body of work you can be proud of. Regardless if you get published or not, keep writing to complete as many essays, stories and blog posts as you can. You’ll develop a body of work to leave as your legacy. More important, your body of work is evidence that you are never too old to start a writing practice.

The best part about starting a writing practice is that you can write well into your 70s, 80s or 90s. No matter what age you are, you can enjoy a writing life for years to come.

In Search of Your True Writing Voice

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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.

15 Writing Ideas for Your 15-Minute Writing Session

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So you think you don’t have time to write. That’s very possible, considering all the demands on our time these days. Work (or looking for work), home schooling your kids, household chores, cooking, and all the other responsibilities we have that can get in the way of our writing time.

Don’t get discouraged if you’re not able to accomplish as much writing during your writing sessions. If you can make time for 15 minutes of writing, you can accomplish more than you think. You just have to go into your session with a goal. Know what you want to accomplish or what you want to write about. When you know what you want to accomplish, you can make the best use of your time. Then get down to work.

Here’s what you can do with your 15-minute writing session.

1. Freewrite for 15 minutes straight without stopping. Let the ideas flow from your brain to the page. Aim to write 100 words every session – at a minimum. Do not stop to edit or rethink what you just wrote. Just keep writing. You may be surprised at the ideas that you see on the page afterward. If you do this consistently, over 10 sessions (aiming for those 100 words), you should be able to complete a 1,000-word essay.

2. Draft a dialogue between two characters. Start with one character asking the other person a question. See where that dialogue takes your characters. Avoid writing back story or other narrative. Focus only on the dialogue.

3. Choose an object on your desk or somewhere in your room. Describe it in detail including the color, shape and texture of it. How did you acquire that item? Is there a story behind where that item came from?

4. If you have a pet, give the animal a voice. Write a few paragraphs as if the pet is speaking to you. What would the animal say? Would he lavish you with praise, or whine and complain that you don’t pay enough attention to them?

5. Create a bullet list of stories you’d like to write. Use a prompt like “I remember” or “What if?” to kick off your ideas.

6. Write a brief review of the last book you read or the last movie you watched.

7. Write the final chapter of your current work in progress. Sometimes by writing the ending first, you have a clearer idea of how to start your novel.

8. Browse through old vacation photos. Describe the place as you remember when you visited it. Add as much detail as you can recall.

9. Create a character sketch of your protagonist, antagonist or other major character. Describe their appearance, then write as much detail about what they are striving for in your story. What is the character’s back story?

10. Recall the last dream you had. Rewrite it as you might read it in a book or see on a movie screen.

11. Write a letter to a friend or loved one, especially someone you have not seen in a long time. Or write a letter to a historical figure you admire and wish you could meet. What would you say to them?

12. Play writing games. For example, choose three words at random from the dictionary (close your eyes, open to a random page and let your finger stop on a word) and write a story using those three words. The story can easily be two to three paragraphs.

13. Think of a book or movie in which you did not like the way it ended. Rewrite the ending. Remember you only have 15 minutes, but you can jot down the key ideas.

14. Close your eyes and listen to the sounds around you. What do you hear? Describe the sounds and the images that come to mind when you hear them. Are there birds chirping? Is there a plane flying overhead? Is someone playing their stereo loudly?  You can do this same exercise with other senses as well, such as touch, taste and smell.

15. Listen to a piece of music, preferably instrumental. Close your ideas as you listen to it. What images come to mind? Does it bring back any memories? Then write about your listening experience.

No matter how busy you may be, there is always time for writing, even if it’s only 15 minutes. Your writing practice shouldn’t suffer because you believe you don’t have enough time. There is always time, as long as you have the desire to write.

If you like this post, please feel free to share it with your friends.

Four Ways to Elevate Your Writing Habit Into a Writing Practice

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I’ve written previously about how aspiring writers can create a regular writing practice. Yet, the term “writing practice” might be confusing for many people. “Isn’t that the same as a writing habit?” you might ask.

No, they are not quite the same. Let me explain as best as I can.

A habit is any activity that is done at roughly the same time every day, like brushing your teeth after every meal or kicking off your shoes when you enter the front door. Habits are more about time and place – where you do that activity, at what time of day, and how often. Some habits, like nail biting, are done so routinely (like during scary movies or intense sporting events) that you don’t even think about what you are doing or why. It becomes mindless.

If you’ve already started a writing habit, you likely write at the same time every day. That set routine encourages consistency and helps you monitor your progress. A writing practice takes the habit a step further by creating stronger purpose, intention and focus.

I borrowed the concept of a writing practice from yoga. I felt there were similarities in the way they are both very individualized experiences. How you progress through the poses is based on a number of factors, such as your level of confidence, body type and skill level, even how you’re feeling that day. Further, yoga isn’t necessarily dependent on practicing every day, though many people do. If you only make it to one class a week, it’s still considered a yoga practice, not a yoga habit. 

Like yoga, a writing practice consists of a purpose and intention, such as getting in touch with a deep emotional wound, creating better sensory descriptions, jotting notes for a non-fiction book, or experimenting with a different genre. Writing every day might make it a routine but to make it a regular practice, you need to add intention and purpose. It’s this mindfulness aspect – of being one with your creative self – that I believe is missing from most writer’s routines.

When comparing a writing habit to a writing practice, there are four characteristics that separate them.

1. Schedule – Think of all the habits you’ve developed over the years. You might go to bed at the same time every night or maybe brush your teeth every morning and every evening. A writing habit provides structure and routine. If you already have a writing habit, you probably have a set schedule for your writing, say writing for one hour starting at six a.m. every day. A writing practice is less structured, and you can choose to write whenever and wherever it is most convenient. If all you have is two hours on a Saturday morning to write, that is your writing practice.

2. Purpose – The goal of a writing habit is to encourage consistency, to make sure you write every day. When you set up a routine time and place to write, it makes it easier to stick to that schedule. In a writing practice, the goal is to create an immersive experience that challenges you in some way. For example, you might dedicate your writing practice to writing a collection of essays or learning to write a different genre.  The practice not only benefits your writing, but also your personal development.

3. Intention – Some writing habits can be mindless in nature. You simply write because it appears in your appointment calendar. Or you write with no set intention for improvement or progress toward a larger goal. Like a yoga session, you might set an intention at the start of your writing session. The intention is designed to help challenge yourself, whether it’s to finish that chapter you’ve been working on or perfect your dialogue or release some pent-up emotion. Without the intention, you have no opportunity to improve your craft.

4. Focus – Writing habits tend to be more externally focused. Perhaps you set office hours and ask your family not to disturb you. People on the outside will see that you are involved in a regular writing session. On the other hand, a writing practice is more internally focused because when you write, you experience growth and progress within yourself, perhaps through greater confidence or a more observant attitude. No one on the outside may notice the difference in your attitude, but you will.

I’ve summarized the comparison in the table below.

 HabitPractice
ScheduleSet schedule, usually same time every dayUnstructured schedule, not every day, but frequently
PurposeProvide consistency and structureImprove writing or create a more immersive experience
IntentionCan be mindless in natureMindful intention to achieve something with each session
FocusExternally focusedPersonal, internally focused

If you have a regular writing habit, that’s great news. It’s important to establish a consistent routine of writing, especially if you are a newbie writer. However, if you want to turn your writing habit into a writing practice, try adding a dose of mindful attention to your work. You’ll create a deeper, more meaningful personal connection to each writing session.

Six Takeaways from a Virtual Conference Weekend

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Three days. Two virtual conferences. One head spinning with ideas.

That essentially sums up the recent weekend’s activities.

Imagine sitting in front of a laptop screen for three consecutive days attending online workshops, keynote presentations and education sessions. It was wall-to-wall education. By the end of three days, my head was throbbing with so many ideas, and my to-do list became as long as Merlin’s beard.

Virtual meetings have come a long way since the very first virtual set-up by AT&T in 1964. At that time, it was one closed-circuit TV screen connected to another in a different location. After the explosion of the Internet in the early 1990s, it was only a matter of time before the first virtual trade show was held in 1993. 

Then in the late 2000s, virtual conferences became more popular as the recession hit and companies looked for cost-effective ways to hold meetings for large groups of people. Today’s platforms are more sophisticated, allowing people from all over the world to gather in one virtual meeting place to listen to keynote speeches, attend online networking events, and meet one-on-one with clients or entire teams. There are more software and platforms available for online meetings than ever before.

AS the pandemic hit this spring, even more companies jumped on board, converting their in-person trade shows to the online platform, including Spring Fling 2020 which I had been looking forward to attending since the beginning of the year. Would the online presentation water down the conference experience? I answered that question this past weekend.

Below are my takeaways about my experiences with virtual conferences in general. In the near future, I’ll do more specific roundups of the individual conferences I attended hosted by Freelancers Union and Spring Fling 2020 (regional event of the Romance Writers of America).

Takeaway #1: The current pandemic crisis has made technology even more vital to our familial and collegial connections. Without technology tools and event platforms like Zoom, staying in touch with friends, family, colleagues and fellow volunteers would not be possible. Many platforms are fairly easy to use, even for novice users. Still both virtual conferences had their share of tech issues. Some speakers had difficulty staying connected to the platform while others experienced drop outs of sound and/or visuals. Some platforms work better with certain browsers over others. For example, the Accelevents conference worked better with Chrome than other browsers.

Takeaway #2: If you decide to attend a virtual conference, make goals for yourself about what you want to get out of it, just as you would if you were attending it in person. However, some feature may require more effort on your part. For example, if your goal is to meet at least three new people during the event, you might need to make the extra effort to attend the networking sessions since they occur in a separate hub, and most interactions aren’t likely to be by happenstance as they might be if you were there in person.

Takeaway #3: Pace yourself. There are as many sessions and workshops to attend during a virtual conference as there are at in-person events. It’s tempting to visit every one of them. If the experience becomes overwhelming, take a time out. Keep in mind your educational goals. That said, the nice thing about virtual events is you can jump from one session to another quickly without having to get up from your seat and move to another room.

Takeaway #4: Take good notes. There may not be handouts so make sure your notes are crystal clear. Since there are so many sessions, take time to review them a day or two later to refresh your memory. Even better, write one or two summaries of the sessions you attend and post them to a blog – just like I’ve done.

Takeaway #5: Chat rooms can be fun, but they can also be a distraction. It was fun to see the ongoing conversation going on in the chat room that ran alongside the presentation. Even the speakers would get involved in a side chat. It allowed for added interactivity that you might not get in an in-person event. The live chat also allowed participants to post questions, which speakers addressed at the end of the session. Still, it was tempting to get caught up in the commentary and lose track of what speakers were talking about. Other times, it was downright annoying, much like hearing people making snarky remarks about a movie that’s showing in a theater.

Takeaway #6: You can’t replace the energy of a live event. No matter how well planned the conference organizers make the event, it still feels like something is missing from the experience. In-person events seem to have a stronger collaborative energy. You can’t help but start conversations with people around you while you’re waiting for a session to start. You don’t get that with online events – or at least I didn’t. Sure, there is an ongoing chat during the sessions, but it’s more about commenting on what the speaker is presenting. Not sure if any of those chats led to a meaningful connection with a fellow attendee, however.

By the way, if you’re interested in participating in a virtual conference, check out WordPress.com’s Growth Summit event August 11-12, 2020 in the U.S. (No, I do not work for WordPress, but thought it was an interesting and timely item to share considering my topic today.)
 
Bottom line: You get out of a virtual conference what you put into it. I’ve always been interested in the education sessions rather than networking, so that’s where I put most of my effort. But if your goal is expanding your network, there are plenty of people to connect with at these virtual conferences.

With the end of COVID-19 nowhere in sight, virtual conferences will only get more commonplace. It will be interesting to see if they become a permanent fixture in the business world.

Have you ever attended a virtual conference? What was your experience like? Would you attend another one in the future?