Is an MFA Program in Your Future?

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Like many writers, I’ve often wondered if I would benefit from attending an MFA program to boost my writing capabilities. An MFA degree – Master of Fine Arts – gives writers an intensive educational experience about the writing craft. Did I have the desire to go back to school, to go through the application process? And did I want to spend money I really didn’t have on a program I wasn’t sure would help my career?

For me, the answer was no. I’ve been fortunate to find numerous workshops and classes about writing so I never felt compelled to apply for an MFA program. Other writers I know have found the MFA to be a valuable asset in their careers. BUT an MFA is not for everyone.

Before you take that leap, there are several factors to consider, such as costs, location, and the type of program. As of 2019, there were 158 full residency programs in the U.S. and 64 low-residency programs, according to Poets & Writers magazine. Full residency programs require students to be on-site and attend classes full-time. In a low residency program, students might need to attend sessions at the university location over a 10-day stretch twice a year while they work on their own the rest of the time. Some programs even offer class sessions abroad.

Every year more programs are launched. With so much to choose from, it can be difficult to know what to look for. Worse, there are tons of articles written on this subject. I’ve done some initial research for you here so you can sort through the key points. I’ll also share some valuable tips and resources to help you decide if an MFA program is right for you. But the rest is up to you.

Why would anyone want to pursue an MFA?

People decide to pursue a master’s program for a number of reasons. They may feel they lack proper knowledge about the writing craft or feel uncertain about their technical skills. Maybe they seek feedback for their writing, or want to be part of a community. For others, it’s learning to teach others, since some programs require attendees to teach classes. Whatever your reason may be, the long-term benefit is learning and growing as a writer.

When searching for a program, there are several questions to ask yourself.

* Do you plan to attend full-time or part-time? If you already work full-time, a full-time program may be more than you can handle, unless you are willing to quit your job for it. Full-time residencies may require you to live near the campus to participate in writing workshops and teach classes. Part-time programs don’t have nearly the time requirement that full-time programs do. Some of the classes may also be delivered online, which makes it more flexible for some students.

* What size program do you want to be part of? Depending on the school, you may attend small group sessions of less than 10 students, or larger programs with more than 30. Then there are programs with medium-sized classes.

* How much money are you willing and able to spend? While some programs are fully funded, meaning they offer all students in the program with financial assistance, others are not funded at all or are partially funded. That means you will have to find ways to finance your education. MFA programs aren’t cheap. Some can cost more than $20,000 a year.

* Do you have any desire to teach? Full-time programs that offer fellowships may require you to teach classes in exchange for income. That’s great is you want to work on your presentation and teaching skills. But if you have no interest in teaching, the full-time programs may be a waste of time.

* What kind of writing do you want to do? As Jacob Mohr writes on the TCK Publishing blog, most MFA programs frown on commercial and genre fiction. So if you want to publish your collection of horror stories, don’t expect a lot of support from program faculty. Most programs lean toward poetry, non-fiction and literary fiction.

Pros and cons of writing programs
Once you have these answers nailed down, you can examine the pros and cons of MFAs.

Pros:

  • You get feedback for your work from instructors and fellow students.
  • You can sharpen your writing skills so you write, edit, and critique more efficiently.
  • You receive intensive training on the writing craft, learning everything from plot structure, grammar and punctuation, and character development. You learn a lot in a short amount of time.
  • You have a chance to work toward a final project, usually a book or performance.
  • You can join a community of fellow writers who are working toward similar goals.
  • You don’t need to take the GRE or other standardized test to gain acceptance into a program.
  • Some programs are fully funded and provide financial assistance to support your education.

Cons:

  • Most MFA programs are pricey, unless you find a fully-funded program. Not everyone can afford to attend an MFA program, not even on a part-time basis.
  • MFA programs can be time-consuming and too intensive to fit into your schedule. Most programs are a 2-3 year commitment, which most people may not be able to give. In addition to attending classes, you may be required to teach classes or fulfill other obligations.
  • There’s no guarantee that you’ll find writing success after you complete the program.
  • Most MFA programs do not address the business side of writing, such as submitting work to editors, marketing yourself, how to get published, finding a literary agent, etc. It’s up to you to learn these hard skills.
  • MFA programs are highly competitive. Many universities receive hundreds of applications for only a handful of students, as few as 10 or 20. So the chances of being accepted are slim.
  • As Mohr mentioned above, most programs focus on literary fiction, poetry and non-fiction writing. Commercial and genre-based fiction is frowned upon. If you wish to write a sci-fi/fantasy series, don’t expect to get a lot of support for your work.

If you decide that an MFA program isn’t right for you, there are educational alternatives (thankfully). Try the slow, steady pace of the self-study or DIY MFA. This way you learn about the writing craft at your own pace. Take classes from local writing studios or schools, attend conferences and read self-help books about writing. This approach might take longer to teach yourself the proper techniques, but you control the subject matter and the timing of lessons. The self-study route also provides more flexibility so you can fit lessons around a full-time job or other obligations.

You can also join a writer’s group to get feedback for your pieces. Most important, write, write and write some more. Most published authors agree that writing a little bit every day is the best way to learn to write.

Still not sure whether an MFA is right for you? Check out Flavorwire’s roundup of opinions from 27 writers. The opinions are mixed. For example, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love), advises people to get “an advanced degree in the school of life…”

“After I graduated from NYU, I decided not to pursue an MFA in creative writing. Instead, I created my own post-graduate writing program, which entailed several years spent traveling around the country and world, taking jobs at bars and restaurants and ranches, listening to how people spoke, collecting experiences and writing constantly,” Gilbert writes.

For more information about MFA programs, check out these additional resources:
Association of Writers and Writing Programs: Guide to writing programs
Poets & Writers Magazine: 2019 MFA Index and Guide

Good luck and happy writing!

Five Signs That You’re Ready to Share Your Writing


Remember to check out the weekly writing prompt on my website.

Most writers I know are private people, especially when it comes to their writing. I’m certainly one of them. It’s always been difficult for me to share my writing with others because I have a terrible fear of criticism. I always breathe a sigh of relief when I get few minor comments on my drafts. It’s why I take great care to make my writing as clean and complete as possible before I submit it to an editor or share it with anyone else. I want to minimize the chance of painful criticism that damages my confidence.

You may be torn between sharing your story and keeping it to yourself. The words you put on the page are personal, and you wonder if it’s worthwhile to share something so personal with others. Getting it down on paper is the first step, of course. It’s the direct path from inspiration to reality. But reading it to others, and letting people view your work, is a huge and difficult step. It’s like crossing a rushing stream when you can’t see how deep the water is, and you don’t know how to swim. Or it’s like crossing a rickety bridge that you fear might collapse under your weight.

But there’s comfort in knowing that most writers have survived those moments. They realize that to be taken seriously as writers, they had to share their work at some point. As Paul Coelho, author of The Alchemist, writes, “Writing means sharing. It’s part of the human condition to want to share things – thoughts, ideas, opinions.”

As you continue your writing practice, you may notice several signs that you’re ready to share your work with others.

Sign 1: You feel stuck in your current work-in-progress.

After working on a story for weeks, you’ve made steady progress toward the conclusion. Then at about the midpoint, you hit a brick wall in the plot. Your brain draws a blank. How do you get unstuck? Maybe you’re too close to the story or too emotionally involved in the plot to see what needs to be done to move it forward. Sometimes having someone you trust read the piece can provide insights on what to do next. It might mean having to rewrite an earlier scene or introduce a new character who interrupts the status quo. Sharing your writing at this point can provide the insight and motivation to keep writing despite the road block.

Sign 2: You feel the story is “finished” as far as you can take it.

When you feel the story is finished, or as good as you can make it, it might be a good time to share it with others. Perhaps this is the third draft of the story and it’s as complete as you can make it. Sharing your piece with others at this point can tell you if readers will appreciate the story. You might read it out loud to a writer’s group or class, have a teacher or mentor review it, and get it published in a small literary magazine. On the other hand, reading out loud may reveal cracks in the foundation of the story that you need to fix.

Sign 3: You’re too excited about the story to keep it to yourself.

You’ve finished a piece on a topic that excites you and you’re eager to share it with others. Maybe you’ve labored over a 3000-word essay for weeks and you’re thrilled with how it turned out. Thrilled too at the topic you wrote about because it has a lot of personal meaning to you. It might be time to share your work with others to revel in your accomplishment.

Sign 4: You’re bored with the current work-in-progress.

This might seem counterintuitive, writes Michael Gallant at the BookBaby blog. But when you’re bored with the piece you’ve been working on, it might help to share that piece with someone else. Their excitement at reading your piece can galvanize you into further action, and their joy can be contagious. With their input, you may look at the piece with fresh eyes and see that it isn’t as boring as you first thought.

Sign 5: You sense that someone can benefit from the story you’ve written.

You may write because they want to inspire readers and share your experiences with them. Maybe you write with someone specific in mind. Perhaps that person has gone through some difficult times, overcome hardships. Sharing your work with that person or with others just like them can cheer them up, and motivate them to stay optimistic despite those difficult times.

There is one caveat to these signs. Never let anyone see your first draft. Wait until after your second draft before allowing someone else to see it. The first draft is usually a disorganized mess where you are still working out the structure of the piece. The first draft is usually written just for you, not for outside consumption. Better to wait for a cleaner second or third draft to get an objective opinion of your piece.

Another rule of thumb, writes Patrick Ness at the BookTrust blog, is don’t show you work to friends. They may be overly enthusiastic about your work and may not critique it the way you need in order for you to grow and improve your writing. It may be better to have an agent, editor, fellow writer or mentor review your work because they have the knowledge and experience to know what will work.

As many writers and published authors can tell you, writing is meant to be shared. So don’t hold back. Don’t keep it to yourself. If you’ve written something, no matter how good, bad or indifferent it may be, don’t be shy about sharing your work with others. It will allow you to see your work through a reader’s eyes.

Feedback vs. Criticism: How They Are Different and Why Writers Should Care

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As writers, getting feedback for our work is a normal part of the development process. Without feedback, we would never know how readers will respond to our story. Without feedback, we won’t understand how we can improve our work. Without feedback, we will never know how to become better writers.

Notice I did not say the word “criticism,” which opens a Pandora’s box of problems. It does nothing more than stop a writer’s progress in its tracks.

Why do we tend to cringe at criticism, but not feedback? Even the sound of both words brings different images to mind and produces kneejerk reactions. Feedback sounds softer, gentler, and kinder. Feedback might remind us of a beloved grade school teacher who provided helpful instructions to complete an assignment. Even when feedback is negative, its intent is to help you improve your effort.

By comparison, criticism sounds harsh, starting with the first hard C in the word. It immediately calls to mind negative experiences, like the day your first love dumped you with a scathing, hateful speech. Criticism seeks to tear you down. There is no intent to be helpful, instructive or kind.

Now look up both words in the dictionary. At first glance, they may seem to be similar, but in fact, they are different. For example, according to Google’s online dictionary:

Feedback is “information about the reactions to a product or a person’s performance of a task, which is used as a basis for improvement.”

Criticism is “the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work; the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.”

Take a closer look at the two definitions. What words jumps out at you? For feedback, the prominent words are: information, performance and improvement. For criticism, the words that jump out appear to be more severe: judgment, faults, disapproval, and mistakes.

It’s no wonder that writers (and all of humankind for that matter) cringe at the word criticism. All criticism does is judge others, find mistakes and seek reasons to disapprove something or someone. There’s no apparent room for improvement.

But feedback does encourage improvement. Is it any wonder that we all may be more open to receiving feedback than criticism?

Amber Johnson at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership at Benedictine University succinctly describes the five differences between feedback and criticism in this Forbes article.

Criticism is focused on what we don’t want; feedback is focused on what we do want.
Criticism is focused on the past; feedback is focused on the future.
Criticism is focused on weakness; feedback helps to build up strengths.
Criticism deflates; feedback inspires.
Criticism says, “You are the problem.” Feedback says, “You can make this better.”

How do you spot a critic? Professional ghostwriter Laura Sherman at the Friendly Ghostwriter blog says that critics are usually frustrated artists themselves. “The harsh critics of today are the failed artists of yesterday,” she writes. Pay attention to how you feel after you’ve read their comments. If you feel worthless, develop a terrible case of writer’s block, or are tempted to quit writing, then you’ve been attacked by a nasty critic. Sherman advises writers to disregard their “advice” which is meaningless and harmful.

As you move forward with your writing practice, think about the role of feedback in your writing development. When you seek guidance from others, whether they are your beta readers, your writer’s group or your family and friends, be clear with them. Ask for feedback to help you improve your craft. Anything else might crush your creative spirit.

Also think about how you give feedback to others. Avoid being overly critical and nit-picky. Always look for something positive that they’ve done before presenting negative comments. Then suggest ideas for how to improve it. When someone asks you for feedback, be kind, be helpful and be instructive.

While feedback and criticism might be related, like distant second cousins, they serve different purposes and live on different sides of the tracks. Let feedback be your guide to a better, stronger writing life.


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.)

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?

Is Perfectionism Undermining Your Writing?

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Are you the type of writer who has to keep editing your work-in-progress because you believe it’s never good enough? Is your waste basket overflowing with crumpled pages because you thought the opening of your story was garbage? Are you afraid to show your work to others because you think it isn’t good enough to be shown?

If this sounds like you, read on.  

As a recovering perfectionist, I can tell you that striving for perfection is overrated. Perfection is a goal you can never achieve. Instead, it might be more beneficial — both for your career and your sanity — to strive for excellence.

How do you define ‘perfection’?

Why is perfectionism unhealthy? “Because it’s a vague standard,” writes Ruthanne Reid at The Write Practice blog. No one really understands what it means. It also can zap the fun and enjoyment out of writing, Reid says.

Try this exercise. On a sheet of paper, write your definition of perfection. What does a perfect piece of writing look like? How does it feel when you read it?

I’m willing to bet that once you attempt to define it or draw a picture of perfection, you’ll realize there is no satisfactory definition. Whatever concept you come up with is likely to be fuzzy and indefinite. That’s because the concept of perfection is vague and subjective. No two people will draw the same picture of it or define it the same way.

How perfectionism holds you back

To understand how perfectionism may be holding you back, ask yourself: what drives your need to be perfect. Is it to please that person from your past who was overly critical of your efforts? Even if they’re no longer around, their words may ring in your ears. If so, stop looking at yourself through their eyes. Instead, envision yourself as the writer you want to be.

Perhaps you want to emulate the success of a particular acquaintance whose work you have always admired. Gosh, you think, I’d love to write just like them. But each time you sit down to write, the words come out all wrong. You keep starting your piece over and over because it doesn’t read like anything so-and-so would write. If this sounds like you, stop comparing yourself to others. You will always come out second best.

The truth is perfection is an illusion. Perfection doesn’t exist except in your own psyche and imagination. Nobody is born perfect, nor can it be achieved with hard work and talent. Stop killing yourself to be something you’re not. Further, you will never write like anyone else, so stop trying. Instead, forge your own path on your own terms.

How to work with your perfectionist tendencies

If perfectionism is interfering with your writing efforts, it’s time to take control of it (rather than allow it to control you). There are ways to work around perfectionism in your writing. Here are a few suggestions:

* Use freewriting to get into the flow of writing. Every morning before you begin your day, write for five or ten minutes without stopping. Allow the ideas to flow from your brain to your pen, no matter what they are. Don’t stop to judge or critique them. Just keep your pen to the paper and don’t lift it up until the timer goes off. You may be surprised at how much you are able to write in a short amount of time.

* Acknowledge that your piece isn’t perfect – and publish it anyway. Be willing to publish your work even if it isn’t perfect, says Joanna Penn at The Creative Penn blog.  Every author has published stuff that they knew wasn’t perfect. That’s actually good news for the rest of us toiling away on our masterpieces. It means your writing only has to be publishable, a more modest goal.  

* Name your critic. In fact, put a face to them too. Identify the one person whose voice you hear when you critique your work, Penn says. Acknowledge their presence, then quickly and swiftly banish them from your work space. Once those critics are out of the picture – and out of your head – you can reclaim your space so you can write more freely.

* Recognize that no writer is perfect. Every writer struggles with self-doubt at times. You are not alone in the way you feel. This is especially true if you’re new to writing. Realize that your initial efforts will not be very good. That’s okay, because you are learning along the way. But by writing every day, or as often as possible, your writing will improve.

* If you struggle with over-editing your pieces out of fear that your work isn’t perfect, try putting a cap on your editing passes. For example, I give myself three revision passes for my projects. Three revisions is more than enough to help me figure out where my story is headed and whether it is worth developing further. If that doesn’t work for you, have a trusted friend or colleague review your piece with you so you stay on track.

* Remember that first drafts always stink. They’re never very good, but you can still find a few nuggets of good writing within them. Think of first drafts as brain dumps – the process of dumping the overload of ideas piling up inside your brain. Use the best ideas for your stories, then discard the rest.

Remember that perfectionism can hurt you more than help you. So do what you can to release your deeply-felt need to be perfect before it derails your writing dream.

A Writer’s Guide to Networking

two women shaking hands
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As writers, we often work solo, unless we’re collaborating on a project with someone else. Sometimes it can get lonely in our creative worlds. It’s not easy working in isolation, but it is necessary to create the  work of our dreams.

But writers cannot live by their writing alone. They have to take time to get out to meet people too. But if you’re like me, you’re a bit of an introvert, which doesn’t make it easy to connect with others.

At a recent event presented by the Chicago Writers Association, a panel of local writers and editors shared their tips for building a strong network. Whether you need a break from your writing, need help getting past a sticky plot point, or simply want to connect with like-minded professionals to find out what they’re working on, your network is an important element in your career development.

One thing the panelists agreed on is this: your writing always comes first.

Here are a few of their suggestions for building your network.

1. Be a good literary citizen. Share what you know with others. Either at meetings and workshops or through your social media channels, be willing to help others. Give advice, tell others about a book you’ve read recently, or tell others about a workshop you attended. Build literary karma – by giving freely of yourself to others, people will remember you when you need help from them.

2. Promote other writer’s works. This dovetails nicely from the first point above and adds to your literary karma. If another writer you know just got published, congratulate them on your social media channels. Even if you haven’t read the book yourself, when your followers and fellow writers see the generous spirit of your comments, they are likely to return the favor when you publish yours. Put other people first.

3. Be a joiner. Join two or three groups that resonate most with you. But don’t just become a member; be active too. An easy way for other members to get to know you is to get involved on a committee because it forces you to interact with other members and industry players. For example, volunteer to be on the membership committee to welcome new members or work on event planning.

The panelists also suggest getting involved in two or three groups to gain different perspectives and further expand your social circle.

Conversely, not all writing groups and associations will resonate with you. That’s okay. Attend one or two of their meetings as a nonmember first to get a feel for what they are about. It may take two or three meetings to decide if you want to become a member.

4. Actively attend meetings. Don’t hide in a corner and observe the proceedings. Set a goal for yourself to meet at least two new people at the event. Make conversations with people, and be sincere when you talk to them. Make the conversation about them, and refrain from pushing your personal agenda on them.

To get the conversation started, think of a couple of questions to ask ahead of time. For example, “What book are you reading now?”, “What are you currently writing?”, and “What keeps you awake at night with regard to your writing?”

Remember other attendees are in the same boat as you. They may be as shy and introverted as you are. It might help to seek out individuals who are off in a corner by themselves. They’re likely new to the group too, so start up a conversation. I find it’s easier to approach one person than it is two or three huddled together.

5. Connect on social media. Many publishers, authors, editors and agents are on social media. Follow them and politely engage with them. Share their posts, comment on their stories, and read their blog.

Here’s a great idea and one I plan to implement: send handwritten complimentary notes to them. Thank them for the work they do, for publishing a certain author whose work you enjoyed, or congratulate them on reaching a milestone. It will make their day. Remember, many of these literary professionals work in isolation too, and they want to hear that their work matters. However, be polite and sincere, and don’t push your agenda.

6. Avoid imposter syndrome. For some writers, it can be difficult to admit that they are a writer especially when they haven’t published anything. Avoid of temptation of telling yourself that you don’t belong with other writers because you haven’t published anything. It’s a self-defeating mindset. Whether you are a newbie writer stretching your creative muscles, or you’ve published several books already, you are welcome at all and every networking event. Practice saying out loud “I am a writer. I am a writer.” Keep repeating it until it is deeply ingrained in your soul. So the next time someone asks what you do, you can say with confidence “I am a writer.”

Remember writing is a journey and we are all passengers on the same road. Some of us come with more baggage than others. But that doesn’t mean you are not welcome to the club. You are not an imposter playing at writing. If you write often, even if you haven’t been published, you are a writer and you belong.

Finally and most important, do your writing before your networking. Your writing should always come first. If you don’t do the writing, the networking is meaningless.

Networking is more than collecting business cards. You also have to learn to be a good literary citizen too.

 

Tips for Getting the Most Out of a Writer’s Conference

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Last week, I shared a list of writer’s conferences taking place in the coming months. These conferences are brimming with good, relevant information that can help you become a stronger, more proficient writer – and maybe pave the way to getting your manuscript published. You can connect with other writers who are traveling the same path as you, and you can learn from published authors, agents and editors.

While many of these conferences can be cost prohibitive for some people, there are ways to be able to finance the admission fees, such as grants and scholarships. (See my post from last week for more information.)

I recently signed up for a conference – my first one – because I wanted to immerse myself in this intensive learning experience. I want to take my writing career to the next level. Signing up for the conference was the easy part. The hard part is preparing for the event. Luckily, I have found numerous tips for getting the most out of the conference experience, which I am happy to share with you.

1. Set a goal (or two) for the event. Think about why you want to be there. What do you want to achieve? Do you want to meet an agent or an editor you may be interested in reading your manuscript? Meet a favorite author? Make new friends? Learn about self-publishing? Get inspired to write that next novel? The choice is yours.

By setting a goal beforehand, you can go into the conference with the intention to work toward that goal. For example, if your goal is to build your network for fellow writers, make a goal of meeting at least three new contacts. Make sure to follow up with them after the conference by email or phone, even if it’s just to say hello.

2. Dress appropriately. Remember you are there to conduct business and you are representing yourself. Dress as you would as if you were going to a job interview or a business meeting. Think business casual. Refrain from wearing jeans and a T-shirt because they might send the message that you don’t take your career seriously.

3. Start networking before the conference begins. This is a great suggestion by Steuben Press. Just because the conference won’t take place until June doesn’t mean you can’t engage with guest speakers until then. If there’s an author or editor that will be present, start following them on social media. Pose a question for then on Twitter or their Facebook page or comment on their blog post. Then when you see them at the conference or bump into them during a coffee break, you can refer to one of those comments to begin a dialogue. The key is to get your name and face in front of them so they will remember you.

4. Practice your elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a brief summary of your manuscript that you should be able to recite to anyone you might meet anywhere – a coffee shop, on the street, or in an elevator. Keep the pitch to no more than two sentences or approximately 50 words, suggests the folks at Jericho Writers. Most editors and literary agents you meet will be pressed for time, so anything longer than two sentences might be a time drain. Besides, most elevator rides don’t last very long.

5. Be organized. Establish a system for tracking everything from who you meet to what you learn each day from each session you attend. I like to carry a notebook that contains all my notes from workshops, classes and conference sessions. Because it’s all in one place, it’s easy for me to look back at some notes from two years ago, for example, that I may need today.

Another habit I’ve developed in my career is to make notes on the back of each business card I receive from somebody. On the back, I write the date and event where I met that person. Again I have something to job my memory about how I know that individual. When I follow up with an email, I can refer to that event that took place so they know who I am.

6. Turn off your devices when you’re networking with others. Stay in the present moment. Enjoy meeting new people without distractions. Besides, when you’re constantly looking into your smart phone, you send the message that you really prefer to be somewhere else. When you show a lack of interest in the world around you, others will show a lack of interest in you.

7. Eat with new friends and business contacts. Once you’ve made some new friends, invite them to sit with you at lunch or meet over coffee. The important thing is to not eat by yourself or sit alone at a table. Sometimes the best relationships begin in one-on-one settings or in smaller groups.

8. Don’t take the conference too seriously. Don’t be all work and no play. Make sure you have fun too. Attend some of the social events, or form your own group outing like visiting an art museum or listening to live music.

9. But don’t get too comfortable. On the other hand, don’t play it so loose and fancy free that others think you aren’t serious about your writing. There’s a time to work and a time to play. Find a healthy balance between the two and you should walk away from the conference feeling excited and energized to take your writing to the next level.

Have you ever attended a writer’s conference? What was your experience like?  How did you prepare for it? What tips do you have for your fellow writers about attending conferences?

Attending a Writer’s Conference Can Make a Difference in Your Career

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If your goal for 2020 is to get more serious about your writing career, then you might want to consider attending a writer’s conference.

There are plenty of reasons to attend a conference: to find an editor, to connect with an agent, to learn more about your craft, to gain motivation, to expand your network, among others. Only you know what you want to accomplish when you get there.

Knowing which conference to attend can be daunting however. There are numerous conferences to choose from and there seems to be more every year. Which one you choose to attend will depend on your budget, of course, the location, and perhaps the size of the event. It’s also important to consider your goal for the conference: what do you hope to achieve while you are there? You might also be enticed by the editors and agents who plan to attend, or who the keynote speaker will be.

Your best bet is to choose a conference that is a) locally accessible and b) serves your genre. That way you know you can spend time with other like-minded professionals who are writing within the same genre and you can connect with editors and literary agents who specialize in that genre. For example, if you write science fiction or fantasy, your best bet is to attend a writer’s conference for the sci-fi genre, though you can get just as much out of a general writer’s conference too.

If cost is a concern, check conference websites for information about scholarships. Some conferences do offer scholarships for part or all of the cost of the conference, so it might be worthwhile to check it out. Also, some states offer grants for individual artists to pursue a professional development goal or complete a project. For example, the Illinois Arts Council offers grants for individuals artists (although as of this writing, funding has been expended and won’t continue until 2021).

Below is a brief list of writer’s conferences for the first half of this year. There are plenty more in the second half, but most of them have not published dates or registration information just yet. Most of the conferences listed below are located in the Midwest, close to where I live. If you live elsewhere, check Google for writing conferences and university-sponsored workshops close to you. Later this year, I’ll do a follow up post about scheduled conferences for the second half of the year. Stay tuned.

What about you? Have you attended a writer’s conference? Where did you go? What was your experience like?

March

Midwest Writers Workshop Agent Fest
Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana
March 13-14, 2020

Let’s Just Write! An Uncommon Writers Conference
Presented by Chicago Writers Association
Chicago, Illinois
March 21-22, 2020

University of Wisconsin Writers Institute
Madison, Wisconsin
March 26-29, 2020

Southern Kentucky Writers Conference and Bookfest
Bowling Green, Kentucky
March 30, 2020

April

Screencraft Writers Summit
Chicago, Illinois
April 24-27, 2020

Spring Fling Writers Conference
Presented by Chicago-North Romance Writers of America
Chicago, Illinois
April 30-May 3, 2020

May

Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference
Black Mountain, North Carolina
May 24-28, 2020

Bear River Writers Conference
University of Michigan
May 28-June 1, 2020

Indiana University Writers Conference
Bloomington, Indiana
May 30-June 3, 2020

June

Rutgers-New Brunswick Writers Conference
Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey
June 5-7, 2020

Write by the Lake Workshop and Retreat  (not a conference, but a working retreat)
University of Wisconsin-Madison
June 15-19, 2020

Write-to-Publish Conference
Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois
June 17-20, 2020

Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference
Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota
June 22-28, 2020

Jackson Hole Writers Conference
Jackson, Wyoming
June 25-27, 2020

And the big daddy of them all:

Writers Digest Annual Conference
New York City
August 13-16, 2020

More conference listings to come later this spring.

Employers Value Good Writing, But Good Writers Are Hard to Find

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Many years ago when I worked for a property manager, I frequently drafted the manager’s correspondence to customers and residents. One day as she prepared to head out of town for business meetings, I happily volunteered to write a speech and a magazine article that she was obligated to write for a local association she belonged to. When she returned, she had two rough drafts on her desk to review. Needless to say, she was impressed. Not only had I saved her valuable time, but I showed that I brought added value to her management team. In fact, she was so impressed by my writing, she gave me more opportunities for writing beyond drafting her usual correspondence to the residents.

That’s just one example of how valuable writing skills are in the workplace. Even with the added emphasis of visual content, websites, podcasts and social media in today’s business environment, good writing still counts – a lot. If you can come to the table with strong writing and communication skills – skills frequently requested by employers – you can increase your value to bosses exponentially.

Despite the demands for strong writing skills, however, employers reportedly are having a difficult time finding qualified candidates with those skills.

In a recent study by Burning Glass Technologies, which provides job analytics to employers, employers reported have difficulty finding candidates with basic soft skills, such as writing, communications, customer service and organizational skills. According to their 2015 study of employer job postings, one in every three skills requested by employers is a soft skill. Even in highly technical jobs, like engineering and information technology, 25 percent of skills requested in job ads are baseline skills.

In another survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, employers were asked to prioritize the skills they sought most from college graduates. Some 82 percent of employers cited written communication, which ranked third behind speaking skills (85 percent) and teamwork (83 percent). Also high on the list of priorities are critical thinking and analytical reasoning (81 percent) and innovation and creativity (65 percent).

Why is good writing important for business? Writing is the fundamental basis for communicating with employees, customers, vendors, colleagues, and fans of your product. It’s a way of expressing thoughts and transporting messages, writes Jeff Bradford, President and CEO of the Bradford Group in Forbes magazine. “Good writing is good thinking that follows a logical path and is easy for someone to follow. Writing out what you want to communicate forces you to organize your thoughts.”

This is good news for professional writers everywhere. There’s still a place for us in the business environment despite recent technologies and growing emphasis on visual communications that seem to undermine good writing. Before you develop your visual presentation, website or podcast, you need good writing first.

Whether you describe yourself as a good writer or aspire to be one, here’s what good writers bring to the business environment, according to Business World magazine.

1. Good writers can make a positive first impression. When readers receive messages that are well-organized, well-thought out and grammatically correct, they form a positive opinion of the writer, and by extension, the organization the writer represents. In contrast, a message that is poorly written with misspelled words and grammatical errors gives the impression that the writer is disorganized, unintelligent and unprofessional.

2. Good writers demonstrate courtesy. They keep the writer’s information needs in mind as they draft their message. By paying attention to the tone of the message, writers show respect for readers.

3. Good writers have more credibility. Employers and clients view good writers as being more reliable and trustworthy. A well-organized and researched message also shows that the writer is knowledgeable and takes the time to plan their message rather than rushing to send it out to readers.

4. Good writers are more influential. There can be a persuasive quality to their writing. They know how to present messages in a way that influences people to take action, whether it’s to donate to a cause, join a membership organization, elect a political candidate, or purchase a product.

5. Good writers are sought-out for their writing expertise. Once word gets around what a word hound they are, co-workers and colleagues may ask for their assistance in editing their pieces or helping them write it. Good writers can gain more responsibility and recognition for their achievements.

6. Good writers understand that an online presence starts with good writing. With so much information on the Internet, good writing is needed to tell clients and customers about business goals, the company’s brand and products. Presentation matters, and it begins with good writing.

7. Good writers make good team players. People with strong writing skills are able to share ideas, give clearer explanations, and coordinate projects easily. Work partners value the clarity of their ideas and explanations. It makes working with them more enjoyable.

8. Good writers gain professional confidence. With each successful writing project, whether it is the launch of a website or a business proposal that wins a new client, good writers gain confidence in their abilities and are inspired to pursue new writing opportunities.

Not every employee has good writing skills. That’s why they are so highly valued in the workplace. If your writing skills are lacking, there are several things you can do to improve them. Take a few classes at a community college or grab a book and read about writing techniques. Most important, practice, practice, practice.

If you are a business owner or manager who doesn’t have good writing skills and doesn’t have time to do some self-study, look for someone who can help you. Hire a freelance writer, an administrative assistant, or editor who can help you formulate your messages and make you look your best in writing.

No matter what field you work in, the ability to write simply, clearly and concisely will help you become a valued member of the team.