Update Your Reference Library With These Writing and Creativity Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Questions Every Writer Should Ask Before Starting a Writing Routine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question 1: Are you new to writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Critiques: Who Are The Best People to Review Your Writing?

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It’s one thing to show off your latest work to your family and closest friends. After all they are the ones who know you best. They know how ambitious and creative you are and how hard you work at your craft. But can they be truly objective about your work? Can they provide more helpful comments other than “it’s a great story.” If you want more than a pat on the back, then you have to look elsewhere to get your writing critiqued.

There are writing groups, of course. Many new writers swear by them, claiming they have gained valuable feedback from fellow group members. But most members are as new as you are to writing, so they may not have the best perspective of your skill or a solid grasp of your story. Members will likely tell you that the work is good as is, simply because they either don’t want to offend you or because they want to be seen as a valued contributor to the group or because they may not understand the difference between good writing and great writing. Personally, I’m skeptical of writers groups for critiques.

So who are the best people to critique your writing? Depending on where you are in your writing process, any one of the following people can provide meaningful and practical feedback.

1. Close friend or spouse
In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggests completing a first draft before having your work reviewed, and then showing it to only one or two people who are closest to you and who you trust, usually a spouse, partner or best friend. King’s wife reviews his first drafts, and she provides valuable input that helps him during the revision phase.

Your significant other knows you best, understands your love of writing, and supports your need to spend countless hours pouring your heart and soul onto a blank page (or computer screen). They may be in the best position to tell you if there’s a better way to phrase something or if a character seems one-dimensional or if a plot twist seems contrived. They may be close to you personally, but they are not close to your work, so they can give you an objective review of your work without killing your enthusiasm for it.

2. Writing instructor or coach
If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you know how valuable the instructor’s knowledge can be. Not only do they become familiar with you as a writer over time, they can help you become aware of your own creative thought process. In that way, you refine your self-editing skills. As they become more knowledgeable of your writing, they can identify weak spots you need to improve on as well as strengths you can maximize to the fullest.

A coach not only provides technical guidance but will also help you be accountable for your writing and help you stay on track to meet your goals. They may be published authors themselves, so they can give you insights about the path to publishing. Many instructors also serve as coaches, offering instruction on a one-on-one basis. Instructors and coaches help you learn to help yourself, but their services may come at a price — the price of a writing class or a coaching session. But the cost may be worth it.

3. Beta readers or reading groups
Other helpful sources of feedback are beta readers and reading groups. Beta readers are individuals in your personal network who are avid readers, while reading groups are groups of avid fans. They may be fans of certain genres, such as mystery or science fiction. If you’re writing a science fiction novel for young adults, reach out to the avid readers in your network and ask for their input. Because they are familiar with the genre and have likely read tons of stories in that genre, beta readers can tell you how your story compares with others they’ve read. Is it on par with them, or does it need improvement? Beta readers and reading groups understand what works and what doesn’t, what will appeal to readers and what won’t.

Mind you, reading groups have a different focus than writing groups. While writers groups focus on writing technique and performance, readers’ groups focus on the storytelling aspect. They understand what makes readers read certain books and not others. And that information can help you craft your story better.

4. An editor
After you’ve revised your story enough times to make it believable and readable, it’s time to submit it to an editor for review. That thought might make you weak in the knees, but don’t fret. Remember, editors are your friends. They’re there to help you hone your story further. They’ve reviewed and edited hundreds of other stories, so they know that many of them are decent enough stories, but aren’t publishable. The editor can tell you how to make your story more publish-worthy.

There are two types of editors. One works for a publication and routinely reviews submitted stories. They know what writing style they’re looking for and the types of stories they want to publish. If your work does not meet the publication’s criteria, it will be rejected.

The second type of editor may work on their own, offering their services to aspiring writers before they formally submit it to an agent or publisher. They will likely charge you for their expertise, but it may be worth it to have someone review your work with a fresh pair of eyes. If you’ve worked on it a long time, you may be too close to your work to see it objectively.

To find a freelance editor, ask fellow writers for referrals. Or check out organizations such as Editorial Freelancers Association or the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, which post directories of editors.

5. An already published writer
If you’re fortunate enough to count a published writer among your acquaintances, take advantage of their expertise. Ask if they are willing to review a few pages or a chapter or two. If they don’t have time to review it, ask if they’re willing to discuss your project. You might get enough meaningful advice just through the discussion alone. Since they’ve been through the publishing process already, they can tell you what worked for them and what they would do differently.

6. An agent
If you aspire to be published, at some point, you will want to show your completed work to a literary agent. Agents tend to work in specific genres, so do your homework and find an agent that works in the same genre as your story. A good place to start is Writer’s Market, which is updated and published every year, and Writer’s Digest magazine, which profiles a literary agent in each issue. Each agent is different, so be sure you review their submission criteria.

Agents will review your work with an eye on its marketability. Will it sell? Is it publishable? Agents have relationships with multiple publishers and can determine if your story is a good fit at one of them. Most important, they’ll review your work to determine if you are worthy of being represented by them.

Depending on where you are in your writing journey, you will no doubt have a connection to one or several of these individuals at some point. No matter which of these people you choose to review your work, their insights can help you become the best writer you can be.

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.”