More than a hobby: Getting serious about your writing

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Remember to check out this week’s writing prompt on my website.

For many published authors, writing may have started out as a hobby. They did it for fun, and writing was an outlet for their creativity.  

These are the people who enjoy writing for the sake of it. They don’t care about being published, or getting reviews on Goodreads or doing public readings at libraries and bookstores. They simply want to spend time creating stories. The writing process is a personal endeavor, not a professional one.

Many professional writers frown on the concept of writing as a hobby. They argue that writing is too hard and too much work to be considered a hobby. Writing might be hard work, but if you get enjoyment from the process, if it gives you joy, then it’s a hobby. To say that hobbyists can’t be taken seriously as writers is garbage. There’s plenty of room in the writing world for professional writers, aspiring authors and hobbyists to co-exist.

But I digress….

Hobbyists separate themselves from their professional counterparts with several notable differences.

* Hobbyists have no set goals for their writing. They write for fun simply because they enjoy the process of creating stories. They write for themselves, and may not be interested in sharing their work publicly.  Hobbyists don’t care if they get published or not. That is not their ultimate goal. They write to express themselves.

* Many hobbyists may not have professional writing experience; in fact, they may be starting from ground zero. Other hobbyists may have different occupations and want to try their hand at writing fiction or their memoir. Perhaps they are testing the waters to see if they’ll enjoy writing for the long term or turn it into a professional endeavor later on.

* Hobbyists have more freedom to experiment with different writing styles and genres. They can experiment with poetry or essay writing or fiction to determine what is the right lane for them. Or maybe they’re content to work on one work of fiction or their memoir for their entire lives, experimenting with different ways of telling the story or writing from different points of view. There are no restrictions in what they can and cannot write.

* Hobbyists may not have a set schedule for writing. At least not at first. They fit writing in whenever they have time or are inspired to create something.

* As a hobbyist, there’s no pressure to perform professionally, writes Meg Dowell. Editors and publishers aren’t waiting for your project at deadline. Without that pressure, writing hobbyists can create whatever their heart desires without the fear of missing a dreaded deadline.

* There are no barriers to entry to writing and it costs nothing to start. All you need is a pen and paper and your imagination. Writing as a hobby keeps your mind active and alert too, which is always a tremendous benefit for older adults.

You may be content to remain a writing hobbyist. That’s okay. There are plenty of people who write for the sheer enjoyment of it.

But what do you do when you decide you want to do more with your writing that just maintaining a journal or contributing to your blog? How do you know that you’re ready to take your writing to the next level? How do you know it’s time to get serious about your writing? Author Bethany Cadman at the Writer’s Life offers a few suggestions, or you can follow a few of my own ideas below:

* You spend more time reading up on your craft. You follow writing blogs and subscribe to magazines to learn about different aspects of writing, such as plot development, humor writing or finding an agent.  By attending classes and workshops, you develop your skills and learn more about the writing process, and get feedback on your stories. You might go so far as to apply for an MFA program (which can be pricey) or a fellowship, though neither are necessary to be successful in the publishing business, say many published authors. In fact, most published authors I know did not graduate from an MFA program.  

* You seek out other writers and expand your network. Perhaps you join a writer’s group or find a writing buddy to share your written pieces with or help keep each other accountable. The online writing community is huge, and you’d be amazed at how many fledgling authors are out there, all seeking the same professional advice as you.

* You harbor a desire to get your work published. Or at least get it read and get it seen. Once you decide you want to be published, plan how you can accomplish that, and give yourself a deadline, say of five years. You begin to look for opportunities to be published, perhaps offer to guest post on blogs or submit material to literary magazines. Each piece you produce builds a body of work that you can show potential publishers.

* You develop a consistent writing practice. You write almost every day, usually at the same time. Perhaps you find you spend more time at your desk writing than you do watching television. You keep notebooks with you to jot down story ideas on a whim or note things you hear and see as you go about your day. With a consistent writing practice, you produce more work that can be shown to editors and publishers.

* You treat your writing as a business. You set regular office hours for writing and building your career. You constantly look for ways to earn money with your writing, even beyond publishing. That could be teaching, coaching, or editing others’ work. Perhaps you may consider starting a freelance writing business or explore self-publishing opportunities. Most important, you show up every day and make consistent progress toward your goals.

Whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional, you should be proud of your effort to make writing an integral part of your life.

Keeping a Writer’s Journal Can Spark Inspiration and Curiosity

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When I began taking my writing seriously – and I mean, writing almost every day – I decided it was time to keep track of all my story ideas. Little did I know then that there was such a thing as a writer’s journal.  That’s exactly what it was used for – to keep track of all things related to writing.

A writer’s journal is a place to track everything related to your writing. It can be based on a single story, a theme or your own writing journey.

Much of that depends on what you want to achieve from your writing. For example, I focus strictly on my writing projects. The writer’s journal is my place for developing story concepts, plot structures and character sketches.

I also keep a personal journal to record events in my life, which I keep separate from my writing journal. It’s my place for emotional venting. The second one is where I keep all my notes from all the workshops and classes I’ve taken related to writing. It’s more about the craft of writing.

I keep these notebooks separate because it keeps me organized. I know I have a designated place for each of them and I don’t have to search through countless story concepts to find that one nugget of information I learned in a workshop three years ago.

I use a simple notebook, but you can use a hardcover journal or use your computer. I prefer a notebook because it’s lightweight and easy to carry with me, and I don’t have to worry about having to turn on my laptop to add something to a document. I also carry a smaller notebook in my purse so if I am inspired by a setting or a conversation I overhear, I can write about it then and there.

Other writers use the writer’s journal differently, but see its value just the same. Writer Rebecca Graf uses the journal when her mind goes blank while she’s writing. “No matter how hard I try, I cannot get all those precise details pulled up from my memories. If I go to my writer’s journal, I can find those details and really enhance that one scene. It is a valuable resource any writer can use.”

Dolly Garland writes at The Writing Cooperative that she has used her journal to collect tips and inspiration for improving her craft. It’s also a place where she gets to know her characters and have dialogues with them.

Every writer is different, so you may want to set up your journals differently depending on what you want to achieve. Here are some common elements to include in your writer’s journal:

Basic story concepts. If you’re like me, you’re constantly coming up with story ideas. It’s important to  jot them down before you forget them. Start with a brief plot description or the premise, then brainstorm the rest of the story. The details about scenes and characters will come later.

Characters sketches. Have an idea for a unique character for your spy series? Or perhaps you met someone or saw someone at the bus stop who inspires a new character. Write it down. Describe their appearance, motivations and quirks. Give them a name to help you visualize them better. Like Garland, try having a dialogue with them.

Places you’ve been to that inspire setting. Think of some of your favorite places to hang out. Spend an afternoon at the beach, a coffee shop or the library. Describe the sights and sounds around you. When you need to describe a setting for a conversation between two people, you have only to refer to your journal to recreate that atmosphere rather than jog your memory for details.

Drafts of scenes. Perhaps you don’t have an entire story figured out but you have one or two scenes that appear vividly in your mind. The writer’s journal is the ideal place to get it all down on paper before you forget it.

Memories and flashbacks of your own life.  You might be going about your business when something you hear or see reminds you of a situation that happened to you a long time ago. Now you can’t get that memory out of your head. It’s time to write it all down, and write it as a real story with real characters.

Middle-of-the-night musings and revelations. If you’re like me, you have moments when you’re wide away at four in the morning and you brain is abuzz with different things: a song you can’t get out of your head, a movie that’s playing over and over, or an argument you had earlier in the day. Instead of letting it disrupt your sleep, get up and write it all down in your journal.

Research related to your next project. Include feature articles and news stories that provide historical background. In my files, I have several articles about women who have worn their grandmother’s wedding dresses. They’re handy references for the story idea I have about a similar situation.

Dreams, especially if they’re reoccurring. I’ve taken vivid dreams I’ve had overnight and written them down the next morning so I don’t forget them. Then I may rewrite them as works of fiction. You never know if you need a dream sequence for your work-in-progress.

Snatches of conversation. Ever sit in a restaurant, a coffee shop or a retail store and overhear conversations between other people? The best ones are the public arguments where the participants aren’t aware they have an audience. Jot down as much as you can remember in your writer’s journal. What were they wearing? What were they discussing? Even if you can’t recall the conversation or can’t hear it, make it up. You never know when you need a lover’s spat for your romance novel.

Some writers say it’s important to write in this journal every day. I usually write in it when I know I have something concrete to add, usually when I’m inspired by something I see or hear, or something directly related to what I’m working on. The choice is up to you, of course. Your writer’s journal is your own.

No matter how you use it, you’ll find the writer’s journal is one of the most valuable resources you’ll ever use.

Strategies to Maintain a Consistent Writing Practice during the Summer

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With summer just around the corner, the weather is heating up. Little by little, COVID restrictions are loosening up in many parts of the country. Like most people, writers are eager to get out to enjoy the season.

Along with the summer comes changes in schedules. The school year ends, families go on vacation and some businesses offer summer hours to allow employees time off. Everyone everywhere is in a more relaxed state of mind. They’re eager to enjoy the season, more so this year than in the past because of what we’ve all been through with the pandemic. Things may be so relaxed, in fact, that activities you were so diligent about – such as a regular writing practice — may slack off.

Is it possible to maintain a consistent writing practice while enjoying summer vacation? The answer to that is yes. You just may have to make some adjustments to your schedule.

If you’ve been diligent about writing every day (or almost every day), you probably want to keep momentum. It might help to have a plan for maintaining your writing during the active summer months, so you don’t lose track of your writing goals.

Now is the best time to develop strategies to maintain your writing practice, no matter what the summer holds for you. If writing is important to you, you won’t want to let it slide. If you already have a consistent practice, you’ll be more motivated to keep writing through the summer months.

Here are a few ideas for maintaining a summer writing practice.

Start your writing session earlier. With the sun rising earlier in the day, you have more daylight to play with. Why not use that daylight to your advantage? Rise a half hour earlier and begin writing when you wake up. Even if you already write for an hour a day, by starting a half hour or hour earlier, you’ll get your session done sooner and you’ll have more of your day to spend doing as you wish.

Condense your writing sessions. If you’re really stretched for time or you prefer to use the time to spend with your kids or your friends, you can shorten your sessions. Instead of writing for two hours (if you’re lucky) write for an hour. If you write for an hour a day, cut back to a half hour. You’re still writing every day, and you’re still making progress toward your goals. You’re just doing it at a slower pace.

Write in multiple short sessions. Another option is to write in short blocks of time, such as fifteen minutes. But schedule them throughout the day. So rather than write for an hour in a single session, break up that hour in four 15-minutes sessions. If all you have are little breaks throughout the day, use them to your advantage. You’d be amazed at how much you can accomplish in 15 minutes. Check out my blog post about this topic.

Give yourself an occasional day off (or two). Sometimes you need to take a break from writing altogether. Summer vacation is a prime time to do that. If you’ve been working on a tight deadline or writing every day without a break in between, treat yourself to a couple of days off. You’ve earned it. You’ll come back to your writing with fresh eyes. Just be sure not to keep extending your break for too long or you will lose momentum.

Focus on non-writing tasks instead. There’s more to writing than putting words down on paper. Other aspects, such as research, interviewing subject matter experts, outlining and developing character sketches, are just as important. But sometimes they can be relegated to the back burner until we have to deal with them. Even daydreaming and people watching can be counted as non-writing tasks if they lead to story ideas and developing character descriptions and plot lines.

Capture experiences right away. Remember to carry a small notebook with you as you go about your day. You may notice something in your environment or experience something special that you want to capture while it’s fresh on your mind.

Make yourself accountable. If you don’t want to slack off too much, tap into your community of writers. Reach out to a mentor or writing buddy when you feel your motivation is lagging. Better yet, team up with them to write once a week in a coffee shop or at the beach. When you know someone else is along for the ride, it’s easier to keep on the path.

It’s tempting to let your writing slide during the summer months. By planning ahead and establishing a regular routine, even if it’s different from your non-summer schedule, you can make progress toward your writing goals.

Nine Habits of Highly Productive Writers

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“You can’t edit a blank page.” Unknown

Whether you’re a veteran writer who’s been published previously or an aspiring novelist, it helps to develop good habits that can make you more productive. Here are some of the things that have helped me in my writing practice.

1. Read a lot. To be a good writer, you need to read – and read a lot. Further, reading deeply and across different genres – both fiction and non-fiction – can broaden your mind. When you expose yourself to different authors and writing styles, you naturally absorb their techniques into your own.

2. Write a lot. This is a no-brainer. The more you write, the better you become, just like practicing a musical instrument or rehearsing lines for a play. It’s all about practice, practice, practice. Over time, as you write, you not only are able to express your thoughts clearly, but you’re able to writer faster in less time. The hard part for many novice writers is getting started. But really, all you need is 10 minutes a day. No matter how busy you may be, it shouldn’t be difficult to find 10 minutes to start your writing practice. Start small and build up your writing routine by adding another 10 minutes every day. Before you know it, you are writing – a lot.

3. Don’t wait for inspiration. Many novice writers believe they can’t begin writing until they feel inspired. But if you wait for inspiration, you will be waiting forever to begin your writing practice. Start writing first, then inspiration will come to you. It was only after I took a few writing classes and wrote in my journal that I began to find inspiration for several novels.

“But what if I have nothing to write about?” you ask. Then start by writing about the fact that you can’t find anything to write about. Or use a writing prompt to brainstorm story ideas. You can find numerous resources on the internet for writing prompts, including Writer’s Digest and DIYMFA. Remember that inspiration comes when you begin writing. So start writing, and write a little every day. The more you write, the more easily inspiration will find you.  

“Don’t think and then write it down. Think on paper.” Harry Kemelman

4. Study the craft. Keep up with your knowledge. Take classes, webinars and workshops to build your skills. Read blogs and magazine articles about your craft. Talk to other writers and learn what works for them. Learning about the art and craft of writing is a never ending process and it’s constantly changing. So keep writing and studying.

5. Persevere when things don’t go right. Nobody is perfect, and certainly, no author’s writing is perfect at the first, second or even the third drafts. Keep at your writing and it will all come together eventually. Remember, that rejection is a normal part of the process too. See it as an opportunity to improve your writing. There will always be rough patches where you don’t feel like writing, where too many rejections get you down, and criticism can drain your enthusiasm. Keep persevering. Nothing ever gets accomplished if you decide to give up.

6. Be open and curious. Many writers I know are naturally curious and love to do research. How many times have I reached for my smart phone to look up something on the internet when I came across a topic that caught my fancy? Curiosity is nearly synonymous with creativity. Writers look at the world with wonder in their eyes, and they’re willing to ask the questions that everyone else is afraid to verbalize. Think of the five Ws – who, what, when, where and why. And don’t forget the H – how.

7. Meet your deadlines. No matter how busy you are, don’t ever let your deadlines slide. Meeting your deadlines shows you are serious about your work and that you’re reliable and professional. Editors will know they can count on you to fulfill your obligations, which means they’ll be more likely to come to you for future assignments.

8. Keep your work space clean. A clean work space is a sign of an uncluttered mind. Make sure everything is in its proper place. and off your desk space. When your space and mind are clear of junk thoughts and papers, it gives your brain free reign to produce quality work. Personally, with a clean work space, I find it easier to maneuver throughout the day and to find things that I’m looking for.

9. Have fun. Writing is supposed to be fun, so relax and enjoy the writing process. Seeing your stories come to life on the page is one of the most satisfying experiences you may ever have. If it stops being fun, then it might be time to find something else to do.

To be a productive writer, it’s necessary to establish your own ground rules. Form good habits from the start, and you can enjoy a satisfying writing practice, whether you get published or not.

What about you? Do you have any habits that make you more productive with your writing?

Don’t forget to check out my weekly writing prompt. See the website for this week’s prompt.

For Some Writers, the Fear of Success is Real

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Check out this week’s writing prompt: What does success mean to you? Describe it on your terms. Or write about a time when fear of success held you back from accomplishing a cherished goal. How did you overcome it?

While the fear of failure is fairly common among writers, others suffer from a different malaise:  the fear of success. That might be a strange thing to say. “How can anyone be afraid to succeed?” you ask. You’d be surprised at how many people fear success, myself included.

Fear of success might manifest in several ways. You might have an unfinished project – or two, or three or ten. You have several projects in various stages of completion but never seem to finish any of them. In your mind, finishing one of them means you’ve achieved a certain level of success. Once you get to the end, you might begin to worry about what happens next – a thought that scares you enough that you never finish your work-in-progress.

Or just when you near the end of a writing project, you get stuck. You’re faced with writer’s block, unsure how to wrap up your story.

Maybe you find other more important things to do. You get so busy doing housework and chores that you can never get around to working on that final chapter.

Perhaps you edit your piece over and over again, never fully satisfied with what you’ve written – a useful delay tactic preventing you from finishing your piece.

Fear of success is very real, but it is misunderstood, according to psychologist Nick Wignall. The fear is about the consequences of success, not the success itself, Wignall says. “Life can change dramatically when you succeed,” he explains. “You’re entering unchartered territory. Fear of success can be more debilitating than fear of failure. With fear of success, you may be projecting yourself too far into the future which can result in self-sabotage. You may not realize you’re sabotaging yourself.”

For example, once you publish a book, you may be required to go on a book tour, do interviews and public appearances and, of course, begin writing that second book. Your life changes dramatically. It’s these unknowns that can scare people into non-action, Wignall says.

If fear of success is holding you back from starting a writing practice, there are several things you can do to get back on track.

Define success on your terms. Think about what success means to you. What does it look like? It may look and feel differently to you than to your spouse or your best friend. We all carry an image of what success looks like. So be sure you are defining success on your terms, not someone else’s.

When you define success on your terms, there should be no reason to fear it because you’ve defined it on terms that are real, concrete and readily achievable. More important, they are meaningful to you. It’s when you follow the path of success that is predetermined by others or by the publishing industry that tend to strike fear in us.

Finish what you start. This is easier said than done, of course. If you have trouble completing writing projects, then stop and consider what is stopping you. Are you stuck on a plot point? Or did you get bored with your story? Or did something else interfere with it, such a sudden need to do laundry?

If you have a file of unfinished stories, go through them now. Choose one story or essay that you’ve started but never finished. Go back and work on it until you finish it. Do not, under any circumstances, start any other projects until you finish this one. Once you finish that piece, sit back and revel in your success of completion. How do you feel now that it’s done?

It might help to make that a general rule of operation: Don’t start any new projects until you finish the one you’re working on.

Remember that finishing a story, no matter how long or short it is, is a form of success. If you’re able to finish one story, imagine how good it will feel to finish all the others in your file.

Stay in the present moment. Because much of the fear of success hinges on possible future events – author readings, interviews, the next novel, etc. – you forget to stay in the moment. Fear of success – or any fear for that matter – deals with future situations that may or may never occur. Why worry about the future when you have important work to do — now? Stay present in your writing and let the future take care of itself.

Train yourself to talk about your writing. People with a fear of success often have difficulty boasting about their accomplishments because they don’t want to appear arrogant or full of themselves. But it isn’t selfish to brag. In fact, for a writer to find an audience, telling others about your completed project is often necessary. So go ahead and tell people what you’re working on. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you talk about your current writing project, the more comfortable you will be with your public persona as a writer.

Share your fears with a friend or writing buddy. If fear is holding you back from finishing a manuscript, it might help to talk things over with a trusted friend or colleague. They may provide some valuable insights to help you over the hump. If you find it truly debilitating, it might be necessary to talk to a professional therapist.

Fear of success for writers is more common than fear of failure, but it can be even more debilitating. Recognizing your fear and why it occurs is the first step toward overcoming it.

How Writers Can Develop Better Resilience

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Check out this week’s writing prompt on the blog.

Life is filled with disappointments – the breakup of a relationship, not getting that coveted job or promotion, a cancelled vacation. But I’ve always believed that it’s how we respond to those disappointments that show who we are.

Suffering through one disappointment is bad enough. But a lifetime of disappointments (and rejections from editors) can make us feel like giving up. Fortunately, most of us don’t. Can you imagine if Stephen King or Toni Morrison had given up writing after being rejected?

Over time, those disappointments can serve an important purpose by building up a hard shell around us, so future rejections can bounce off. As Polly Campbell writes over at the Writing Cooperative, resilient writers are also among the most successful.” They learn to bounce back from setbacks and keep going despite the pain of rejection. And as they keep working, they are learning their craft and improving their writing.

“Resilience doesn’t prevent hardship or adversity, but it does help us to reframe the difficulties and move through them faster. With resilience, we become more adaptive, creative and flexible. We are less stressed, more capable. This helps us keep writing despite the setbacks,” Campbell says.

Resilience is an important behavior that writers need to develop. But it takes time. Some of us are naturally better at it than others. But like any other behavior and skill set, it needs to be developed, honed and fine-tuned. Unfortunately, that means going through some rough stretches in our writing careers and opening ourselves to disappointment – over and over again.

But successful authors says there are ways to strengthen our inner resilience beyond the school of hard knocks.

  1. Stay optimistic. It may be difficult to maintain a positive mindset when your work is constantly being rejected or criticized. The most resilient writers are able to do that. Campbell says optimism can motivate behaviors which foster improvement or better outcomes. That means keeping our eye on the prize and not letting it out of our sight. Believing in the potential of your latest work-in-progress may be enough to keep going.

  2. Not everyone will “get” your story. Whether writing science fiction, historical romance or non-fiction, recognize that not everyone will “Get” your story. They may not understand the plot, the characters or some of the action that takes place. That’s okay. There are other audiences what will understand it and believe in it. The most important person who needs to “get” the story is you. If you lose faith in what you’re doing, then you’ve lost the fight. Keep believing in the story, and others will get behind it too.

  3. Celebrate the rejections. As contradictory as that may sound, it actually makes sense. Science fiction author Alex Woolf suggests rewarding ourselves every time we receive a rejection. It’s a way of honoring our efforts. “Rejections are milestones showing you’re on your way to a win,” Woolf says. “Rejections show you are working hard to achieve your goals. The more stories you submit, the more you’ll be rejected, but it also raises the chances to get an acceptance.” One idea is to drop a dime (or a quarter) into a jar each time you receive a rejection notice. Over time, you will have built up a supply of coins that you can take to the bank, or reward yourself with a special treat.

  4. Look for positive nuggets in the feedback. Woolf says we’re programmed to focus on negative comments to the point that we overlook the positive ones. After the dust has settled and you’ve regained your composure, go back and re-read the rejection letter again. Did the editor make any positive comments? Did they make any suggestions for improving it, or invite you to re-submit something else? If so, take heart. Focus on the positive news, implement their suggestions, then be sure to respond with a kind thank-you to the editor.

  5. Remind yourself of your ‘why’. Several weeks ago, I challenged myself to list forty reasons why I write. (I actually came up with fifty, but who’s counting.) If you feel tempted to give up on writing, go back to your why. When we’re disappointed and feeling hurt by repeated rejection, it can be tempting to give up on your craft. But when you remember why you’re doing this and why you love to tell stories, it may be enough to keep going. When you keep your ‘why’ in perspective, you’ll easily bounce back from setbacks.

Whether you focus on positive feedback, celebrate rejections or remind yourself of your ‘why’ of writing, you’ll develop stronger mental capacity to deal with setbacks on your writing journey. The most resilient writers are the most successful. Don’t let rejection and disappointment deter you from your writing goals.  

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.


Why Pets Make the Best Companions for Writers

Check out this week’s writing prompt!

Many writers I know live and work in isolation. Luckily, most of them seem to have a loyal furry friend (or two or three) to keep them company. That begs the question: Do pets make the best companions for writers?

The answer to that, of course, depends on where you live, how many people live with you, and whether you like animals or have pet allergies. But more often than not, most writers I know have made room in their lives for a furry pal.

You don’t have to own a dog or cat to appreciate the benefits of pets. Even a goldfish or guinea pig can provide comfort and inspiration when you need it. Colleen Story at the Writing and Wellness blog describes the pros and cons of different types of pets, including horses, goldfish, birds and rabbits. Imagine that you can have a different pet for different reasons!

In fact, writers and their pets are such a fascinating topic that entire books have been written about them. Check out this one by Alison Nastasi and this one by Kathleen Krull.

So why are pets such an important part of writers’ lives? They provide multiple benefits, some related to health and others related to our work.

1. Pets provide inspiration for our work, sometimes acting as a writer’s creative muse. They may show up in stories as a secondary character. Think of Alice Walker and her chickens. She loved her chickens so much, she wrote an entire book about them! While Edgar Allen Poe did not own a pet raven, he was inspired by Charles Dickens’ pet raven to write about them.

2. Pets are good for your health. According to the Center for Disease Control, having a pet helps lower blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol. Pets can lower stress and improve levels of happiness in their owners. Pets need regular exercise to stay healthy and strong, and it’s only natural as pet owners to join them on their excursions. Pets remind us of the importance of regular fitness breaks to keep us active and strong.

3. They provide companionship. In these days of social isolation, when Zoom calls have become the norm, it can be comforting to hug a furry friend. I believe curling up with a dog or cat while reading a book is one of life’s most cherished moments.

4. They teach us about routines. Cats, especially, are creatures of habit. They live their lives by routine. They like to eat at the same time every day, take naps in the same spots, and play with the same toys. Writers who are just starting their writing practice can benefit from establishing a writing routine, just like cats establish their grooming habits. Having a routine can be good for our writing because it establishes a steady rhythm to life.

5. Pets remind us to take frequent breaks. Cats and dogs may race around the room chasing after toys, but afterward, they stop to rest. They take frequent naps too. The time outs are necessary to restore their energy so they can bounce back and play more. As writers, we need to take breaks too to restore our energy, to think more clearly and

6. Pets provide comfort when things aren’t going well. Whether we’re fighting writer’s block or we’ve just received a rejection notice from an editor, pets make us feel that our lives are okay despite the disappointments. Even better, they provide comfort too when things go well. Imagine a congratulatory lick on the face when you’ve just finished a story you’ve slaved over for several weeks.

7. Pets provide unconditional love. We may hate the story we just wrote or the publication that just rejected our essay. We may feel down on our luck and question why we put ourselves through the wringer. Pets love us anyway. As long as we feed them, play with them and keep their litter box clean, they’re happy, and they’ll gladly return the favor.

8. Pets will never share your secrets. When it’s just you and your dog or cat, you can chat with them all day and they won’t tell a soul what you’ve said. They don’t spread gossip either. While they might occasionally misbehave and talk back in their own animal way, they won’t betray your trust. They make good listeners too. So if you need an audience for your latest short story or poem, they will gladly listen – as long as they’re not napping.

Since writers often work in isolation, it’s important to surround themselves with a strong support group, even if that includes a favorite furry friend or two.

Do you have a furry companion in your life? How have they inspired you in your writing?

How to Love Your Writer Self (Even When It Isn’t Perfect)

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Check out this week’s writing prompt: Write about a time when a stranger did something nice for you.

As individuals, we play different roles – parent, child, student, employee, boss, spouse and friend. Add one more to that list – writer.

The writer self may start out small and vulnerable, like an infant or toddler. Just like a toddler who is just learning to walk, your writer self must learn to walk too. That means taking baby steps, such as writing a little bit each day, taking a class or workshop to develop skills and experimenting with different writing styles to figure out what kind of writer you want to be.

Most important, as you grow into your writer role, you learn to recognize your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. You also must learn to love your writer self, flaws and all. In her book Milk and Honey about resilience and overcoming adversity, Rupi Kauer writes, “How you love yourself is how you teach others to love you.”

At My LA Therapy blog, Tobias Foster writes, “Accepting our strengths and weaknesses and reconciling the conflicting parts in our inner world is critical to our health and happiness. You cannot achieve anything substantial in the outer world without fixing your inner world.”

In order to make an impact with your writing and create meaningful work, you must take steps to clear your inner world of negative thoughts and replace it with kinder, gentler ones. You must strive for self-kindness and self-acceptance.  “Having self-compassion builds resilience in the face of adversity, and helps people recover more quickly from trauma or romantic separation,” writes Ana Sandoui in Medical News Today. “It also helps us cope with failure and embarrassment.”

The harsh self-criticism we give ourselves, she adds, is because we’re driven by a deep need to do everything perfectly all the time, which can cause physical and mental health issues down the road.  

So what does all this mean for writers? How can writers move past these mental and emotional road blocks to become a more loving writer self? Here are a few tips for practicing self-compassion for your writer self.

* Avoid judging yourself. Or at least, don’t judge yourself so harshly. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. You may not be aware that you are judging yourself because you may become so lost in your own world that you don’t pay attention to your own thoughts. Many times, we are our own worst critics when judging our own writing. If you find yourself judging yourself too harshly, have someone else review your work. They may be more objective than you, and they may find that it’s not nearly as terrible as you think it is.

* Recognize that perfection is a myth. Realize that no one is perfect; we all have flaws we’d prefer to hide from the public. But as part of a larger community of creatives, you experience the same feelings of self-doubt and fear. That makes you more alike with your fellow creatives than you are different. When you accept that you are not perfect and everyone else is not perfect, you won’t feel so alone or as different as you fear.

* Avoid comparing yourself to others. One mistake new writers make is comparing themselves to other writers, especially to those whose work they admire. Remind yourself that you are at a different experience level than they are, and you bring a different set of experiences to the table. When you compare yourself to others, you will always lose. You will set yourself up for failure before you even begin. Know that your life experience and writing skill has value.

* Learn to practice mindfulness. Whether through meditation, yoga or journaling, it’s important to quiet your mind so you can hear yourself think. Be still and be in the moment. Turn off social media and electronic devices and turn in to yourself. You may realize that your thoughts aren’t nearly as negative as you believe them to be. When you practice mindfulness, you develop emotional equanimity – that feeling of being in balance with your inner world, and you’re less likely to identify with painful emotions and experiences that can hold you back from writing.

* Don’t seek approval from other people. When you begin writing, it may be important to seek other people’s opinions of your work. You may wonder if you’re moving in the right direction, or if the story you’re writing is boring. While it’s important to get feedback, don’t let it influence your writing practice. Take everything than anyone says with a grain of salt. Remember to write for yourself first, then for your readers. If you write strictly for someone else’s approval, you will never be satisfied with your effort because you will always be looking at it through their eyes. Learn to trust yourself.

* Practice self-kindness. Learn to forgive yourself for any mistakes you’ve made. As I mentioned, no one is perfect. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend or a sibling – with kindness, compassion and understanding. Learn to speak tenderly with yourself, suggests mystery author Julie Glover. If you’re constantly berating yourself about your writing, then flip the script. Talk to yourself as a lover would, she says. (Glover gives a nice example of this on her Writers in the Storm blog.)

When you practice self-compassion for your writer self, you’ll forgive yourself for your mistakes and become more resilient in the face of adversity, such as a loss of a contract or a bad review.

Most important, remember that no one is perfect; all writers and creatives are flawed in some way. It’s a waste of time and energy to let self-doubt ruin your writing. In the words of poet Henry David Thoreau: “It is not worth the while to let our imperfections disturb us always.”

How Writers Can Cultivate a Strong Relationship – With Their Writing

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Check out this week’s writing prompt on my website!

February is the month for love and romance. It’s the time of year when our thoughts turn to our closest relationships, whether they be with a spouse, significant other, a friend, a child or a parent. Even if you’re not in a relationship currently, your thoughts may stray to someone you’ve loved before, or would like to love in the future.

In the publishing business, your closest relationship could be with your agent, editor, writing coach or readers. However, don’t overlook the most important relationship – the one you have with your writing.

Is there such a thing as a writer-writing relationship? Yes, if you think of your writing life as a separate entity. You can either embrace it, welcome it into your life with open arms, or reject it as some strange being who insists on getting more attention from you, more than you can possibly give to it.

If you do recognize your writing life as a separate being, how do you built a loving, kind and respectful relationship with it? Here’s one example of a writer-writing relationship, courtesy of Annie Mueller. Also check out this anatomy of a writing relationship by Samantha Stout.

I believe that a writer’s success hinges on how well they relate to their craft.  If you love what you write, your writing will love you back – or at least it should. If you give it the time and attention it deserves, your writing will reward you down the road, even surprise you when you least expect it. Just like a real relationship with a human being.

What you and your craft create together is as close to a partnership as you can find. Your writing can draw you out of yourself and bring out the best of you. It can showcase your deepest thoughts and emotions, and show how you have grown through life experience.

Likewise, your time, attention and effort will make your writing shine to editors and readers. Sure there will be rough spots when one or both of you don’t feel inspired to work with the other. There will be times when you ignore each other even. But then those periods may be followed by happy reunions when you work so seamlessly together and you wonder how you ever thought you could live without the other. You need each other, like sunshine needs the rain to keep the earth’s flowers from drying out.

As I’ve explored my own writer-writing partnership experience, I’ve noted a few rules of engagement to make sure it works. Here’s how you can create a healthy relationship with your own writing endeavor.

1. Spend quality time with one another. Try to minimize distractions. Whether you spend an hour a day or several hours a week, it’s important to use that time to learn about each other, to recognize strengths and accept the flaws. Understand each other’s desires and motivations, what makes you tick. If you don’t spend quality time together with your craft, how will your relationship to each other ever grow strong?

2. Recognize each other’s faults, and love each other despite them. Your writing has weak spots, quirky characteristics, routines and tendencies. With time and attention, the writer in you can strengthen those areas and perhaps lessen their detrimental impact. Your writing is an extension of yourself, with all its flaws and mysteries. Your writing is not perfect, but then, neither are you. So accept the flaws, improve them if you can, but otherwise, accept them for part of who you are.

3. Stay friends, even during the rough patches. You may never fully fall in love with your writing, but at least make friends with it. Develop a healthy respect for each other. Keep the lines of communication open to leave open the possibility of a reconciliation. Even as friends, you can learn and grow together.

4. Know when to make sacrifices and special accommodations for your other half. There will be times when each of you will need to make sacrifices and special accommodations for the other, just as if you were in a relationship with a human. For example, your writing may call to you at the most inappropriate times, like during your son’s soccer game or during a movie. It may demand you take notes of a new story idea. You’ll have to decide whether to give in to that demand or ignore it, which could be risky because you don’t know if that idea could evolve into a meaningful story.

5. Keep your heart engaged in the process. Whether writing soulful stories or romantic poetry, be sure your heart is truly engaged in the creative process. Share your deepest fears and your triumphant moments. That’s what will bring out the best in your writing. Without heart, your writing will appear bland and boring.

6. Take a break from each other when necessary. If you lose motivation to write, it might be time for a trial separation. The break might give you proper perspective on your writing partnership. It might give clarity about where you want to go with your current work-in-progress and how to get there. Alternately, if the relationship is beyond repair, dump the project that’s giving you problems and move on to something else.

7. Ask yourself why you love to write. If you love writing for all the right reasons, then you are bound to have a strong, healthy relationship with it. But if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, such as seeing your name in print or writing to please someone else, the writing side of your partnership may suffer at some point and your interest it may wane. When you remember your ‘why” of writing, you’ll likely return to center and stay motivated through difficult stretches.

It may seem odd to treat your writing as a significant other, but think about where you would be without it. When you view your writing as a true partner that you love for life, you’ll treat it with the care and devotion it deserves. Both you and your writing will thrive.