Fresh Start to 2019: Three Writing Prompts to Brainstorm Story Ideas

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This is the first of a series of posts about starting fresh for 2019. With the New Year upon us, many of us look to start new habits or activities. I’ll address some of those fresh starts as it relates to work, life and writing. In this first post, I will share writing prompts to brainstorm story ideas and boost your writing practice.

Starting a writing practice is difficult, but it’s nearly impossible without a story idea to work with. There are numerous sources of writing prompts to get you started, of course, but they can be so narrowly focused that they may not fit what you want to ultimately achieve.

Most writing prompts deal with one of three themes: the past, the present or the future. With this in mind, you really only need three writing prompts to help you brainstorm story ideas, one for each of these themes. Let me show you how.

1) I Remember… (or alternately, “Remember when”)

Using either of these prompts helps you reflect on the past. It’s ideal for memoirs, stories about growing up, attending school, family dynamics and vacations. Incidents that seemed insignificant when they first occurred may have more meaning now as you reflect on them. That reflection is the basis of your story.

On a sheet of paper, write the phrase “I remember” at the top. Then give yourself five or ten minutes to complete the phrase.

Examples include:
“I remember when I nearly drowned in our family’s swimming pool.”
“I remember attending my first Blackhawks hockey game with my father when I was 11 years old.”
“I remember the day my younger brother was born.”

You get the idea. Keep going with your list until time expires. You should have plenty of ideas to work with to begin writing. It may even lead to a collection of essays that you can publish in the future.

2) I Believe

From the past, we move to the present with the prompt “I Believe.” This prompt explores how you are feeling in the present moment. Those beliefs can be about anything: politics, relationships, raising children, your career. But the common element is your beliefs, your values, what you see as important in your life at this moment. Because the focus is on the present, this prompt is most useful for defining subjects for op-ed pieces and personal essays.

Examples include:
“I believe many pet owners treat their pets better than they treat other humans.”
“I believe all colleges and universities should provide free tuition.”
“I believe I was fired from my job because my boss didn’t like me.”

Once you have made your list of completed “I believe” statements, you can begin to explore your feelings further, beginning with why you believe the way you do. It might be helpful to back up your belief statements with statistics, survey results and other research that will give your statement more credence.

3. What if?
If you’re more forward-thinking, the prompt “What if?” can help you imagine all sorts of possibilities about the future. It helps you create worlds that don’t currently exist. What is different about this prompt compared to the previous two is that it does not hinge on any emotional content. “What if?” is non-personal, non-judgmental and more objective. This type of prompt is ideal for creating fiction, especially science fiction, fantasy, horror, mysteries and thrillers. Of the three prompts, this is the one you can have the most fun with because there is no limit to what your imagination can conjure up.

Examples include:
“What if the city of Chicago was invaded by zombies who climbed out of Lake Michigan?
“What if scientists finally found a cure for AIDS, cancer or some other disease?
“What if a woman was elected President of the United States?”

If you’re feeling stuck with your writing and are looking for new story ideas, these three basic writing prompts are all you really need to kickstart your efforts. Start with one, make your bullet list, and then let your imagination do the rest.

Cool Gift Ideas for Writers and Business Communicators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy shopping and happy holidays.

Six Writing Causes You Should Support on Giving Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Being Thankful for Being a Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving!

Facing the Scariest Truths about Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven Questions to Ask Yourself Before Starting a Writing Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to Improve Your Own Writing? Read Poorly Written Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Some Writers, The Pen IS Mightier Than the Keyboard


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Why Longhand Writing May Be Beneficial for Your Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Writing from the Heart

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

You get the idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for Self-Editing Interpersonal Communications

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Our personal communications is as vital to our success as our marketing and sales strategies, maybe even more so. The way we present ourselves to the outside world says more about who we are personally and professionally than any strategic plan. More often than not, what we do and say can either help our business or hurt it. For evidence of that, you only have to look at public figures like Roseanne Barr to see how swiftly things can change with one poorly thought out comment.

That’s why it’s important to learn self-editing techniques. Self-editing is the process of reviewing, revising and correcting your own communications. It is similar to the self-editing process for a manuscript, except it is geared toward social media, emails and correspondence, such as cover letters.

A poorly worded email can make you look ignorant, while a well-crafted letter written in an angry tone can make you look unprofessional. Neither one will help you achieve your business goals.

What you say – and how you say it – gives the recipient a clear idea of who you are. Further, what you say or write may not always be exactly what you mean. Ever write something that sounded fine in your head but when you or someone else read it back to you, it didn’t have the same meaning? Somehow the meaning got lost in the transition from your head to the paper or computer.

More important, what you write or say can have lingering and sometimes devastating impact. One poorly thought out tweet posted in a knee-jerk reaction can cost you clients and customers. In conversations, what you blurt out cannot be taken back. Ditto with social media and emails. Once it’s out there, you can’t get it back, and the damage to your business and reputation is already done.

We are all guilty of these communication miscues, but there are ways to refine our skills to prevent this from happening too often. I’m just as guilty as the next person, so I’ve learned from my experience to self-edit my interpersonal communications with the same attention to detail as any writer would a manuscript for publication.

Before writing that cover letter or email to an upset customer or responding to someone’s Facebook post, take a few minutes to follow these tips to self-edit your communications.

Step 1. Using a note pad or blank sheet of paper, write everything down that you’d like to say. Spill your guts. By putting it all down on paper, you won’t be in a position to hit Send or Post right away. If you’re angry, or upset or excited about a situation, writing your ideas down on paper first will help dispel some of that emotion.

Keep in mind that you will not use everything you write down in your final correspondence. But just like writing a novel, it will help you get all your ideas down first. Then you can edit it later.

Step 2. Set the letter aside for a few hours. Let it simmer on the backburner. Go and do something else for a while – head to the beach, play basketball, take a nap, watch a movie, anything to get your mind off the letter. Your emotions will simmer down by then too so you will be able to think more clearly.

Step 3. Come back to your letter after sufficient time has passed. I recommend at least a day if you are truly upset about something. Otherwise, a few hours will be sufficient. Review what you have written. Underline or highlight the important points you want to make that still ring true. Keep it to only two or three points however, so your final letter won’t be overly long.

Step 4. With a red pen, cross out the sentences and sentiments that do not belong, things you wrote in anger or excitement, or extraneous content that does not add value to your letter. Whatever is left can be reviewed and edited for appropriateness or to help you support your key points.

Step 5. Rewrite your letter, email or social media post with the highlighted information left over from your draft. Chances are it will be more concise and less emotional than before. That’s a good starting point.

Step 6. Review again for spelling, grammar and punctuation. Misspelled words shows carelessness and lack of attention to detail. It also shows you didn’t take the time or didn’t care to proof your work.

Step 7. Pay attention to the tone of your letter or email. You want to come across as professional, clear-thinking. Although if you are writing a letter to support a cause or persuade someone to take action, a little emotion may be necessary. But don’t overdo it.

Step 8. Avoid personal attacks. Focus on the issues you are writing about. There are ways to express dissenting opinions rationally and intelligently without resorting to personal insults, which only makes you look bad.

If in doubt about your ability to self-edit your personal communications, have someone you know and trust proof it for you.

This same process holds true for social media posts. Write down what you want to say on paper first, set it aside for a few hours, then come back to it. You may decide to tone it down, revise your comment or not post it at all. There is no reason to respond to someone’s comment on social media right away. Buy yourself some time and put thought into your response. What you say and write reflects on you, for good, bad or worse.

Self-editing is an important part of the personal communications process. By following these simple steps, you can communicate with colleagues and customers with greater confidence and integrity, and they will see you as someone with whom they want to do business.