Rules for Writing

When people hear I write, they approach me as if I’m in possession of some mystical knowledge.    How can I find the time to have a thought, write it down, and revise it?  Surely I am gaming the system somehow!  Surely I have a charmed life, with plenty of time to read hardcover books, look out the window, and attend parties full of well-heeled people quoting western canon classics.

Joke’s on them – I don’t like leaving my house!

The reality of this is that there is no magic spell for writing productivity.  It does not exist.  Stop looking for it.  The only way to learn to be a good (and productive) writer is to actually write.  Writing is work, it is messy, it is frustrating, and it only sometimes results in useful material.  It is less sorcery than it is mining: you dig and dig through piles of crap, make a big mess, and spend ages melting down raw material and chopping off slag before something remotely presentable emerges.

No one likes to hear that.  It’s not the romantic starving-in-a-garret image we still have of writing.  And it’s not the slick-millenial-with-a-mac image of writing we have now sold ourselves.

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Nonetheless, most people turn to Google for advice.  I did it, too.  Turns out the internet is so full of tips for writing and productivity that a basic google search returned over 15 million hits!

writing productivity

 

There is no need to slog through list after list, dodging clickbait right and left.  I have a few basic rules about writing that I’ve picked up over the years. These actually work.  Hands down.  They work completely and totally until they don’t and you have to try some new ones, because writing as I said before is not a magic spell.  (Ed. note, that is a run-on for comedic effect, please don’t do that, my boss is reading this!)

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Well you just can’t, Minerva.

 

  • Actually Write:  Oh yeah, about this one.  You have to produce to be productive.  You have to write to be considered a writer.  You can’t just think of it, or visualize it, or hide it away.  Nor do you have to win a Pulitzer.  Just produce writing.  This is why I recommend blogging for novice writers – at the very least, it gets writing out of the notebook and the desk drawer.  If you work it properly (reading and commenting on others’ blogs) you may even get feedback.  If nothing else, it’s a great way to maintain a corpus of work, and it’s very easy to go back and edit.  The nervous writer can see their words formatted and “looking pretty”, which does help build confidence.  This, however, is not enough, as you must also…
  • Give yourself the gift of the draft: No one is ever going to produce a perfect first draft, or second, or seventh.  This takes time.  Instead of imagining someone judging you, and being horrified if you’ve left a preposition dangling (which I surely have) – remember that every single piece of writing is a work in progress.  Get it out first, then polish it.  You will never spit out the Mona Lisa.  No one ever has.
  • Revise, edit, proofread – know the difference: This is something I wish we still had time to teach in elementary and high school.

 

Revision is looking at a finished draft, and asking radical questions about the ordering of points, the types of details used, etc.  When you revise you look to make large-scale changes to the work to better the work, not coddle to your image of what the work should have been in a perfect world, if you were just a perfect person.  At this point, the draft is still hot lava – it can take many forms, or destroy the landscape you thought you built for it – but it always leaves a new one behind.

Editing is when you dig into the paragraphs themselves, ensuring that you have as many words as you need to make your point (or striking unnecessary clutter).  If you have arguments in your pieces, you will edit them to ensure they are logically presented, and are in order.  This is what you do when you’ve revised to your satisfaction, but are not yet addressing minor errors.  The lava is starting to cool at this point, but you can’t quite inhabit this new land.

Proofreading is when you check for spelling, grammar, and formatting mistakes.  This is the part most people confuse with editing.  It’s an old fashioned term, from back when people would, when writing a book, print out a copy just to check the spelling with a blue pencil.  You were literally reading a “proof” of the work, catching any last minute minor issues.  The lava has long cooled at this point, and there is soil, plants, and animals on your new draft/landmass, and you are just sort of pruning your garden at this stage.

 

  • Read it aloud or backwards:  It is very important to divorce yourself emotionally from your work. If you want to be a writer, you have to be willing to eliminate things you thought you needed, details you may have treasured, or turn whole paragraphs inside out – you have to be willing to tear your work apart.  This is because writing is meant to be read by others.

Your artistic vision is ultimately in service to your readers, so you have to look at the work from their angle.  When we write something, a short essay for instance, we usually have a different image in our minds of what’s on the page.  The reader may not have you there to over over them and explain “what this really means is….” – your words have to stand for you. Reading aloud is the first step to making your writing an object separate from you.  It’s ok to love your writing, but you must be willing to give it what it needs.  Reading your work backwards, sentence by sentence, us another good way to do this – it’s also a handy way to proofread.

  • Make writing plans: If you want to actually be a writer, it helps to think of it like a small business.  When you grow a business, you set goals, or milestones for yourself.  You achieve one small thing after another, in service to a larger goal.  So what’s your goal?  What’s your endgame?  What do you want to do with this writing?  How are you going to get there?  Google calendar is a great way to set dates do do things by – and you can even connect it to your mobile to ring an alarm bell to remind you to write, revise, etc.

NB: When hen you make plans, make sure they are plans you can control.  “Being published” is a fine goal, but that itself you can’t necessarily make happen.  “Improving my grammar”, or “Blogging weekly”, or (my personal one) “responding to more blogs to build relationships with other writers” – these you can control!

So there we are!  These may or may not work for you, and you may need to use them in conjunction with other tips, but as long as you’re writing, you’re getting there!

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Science Fiction Double Feature: Blogging Guilt + Clutter and Personal boundaries

Hi everyone,

You know that unfortunate “sorry I haven’t been posting” post?  Yeah, this is mine.  The rhythms of my day job get more and more complicated this time of year, so blogging simply had to take a back seat.  But I will not let that get me down!

This will be a two part post.  The first, I feel compelled to add.  It’s about time and blogging:

I.  TCB: Taking care of business

This is one for the bloggers out there.  If you are dealing with something very complicated in your offline life, and you are quite literally taking care of business, don’t feel guilty if you missed your post.  I know that’s a tall order, given the prevalence of guilt and also the fact that for many people regular posting is money or at least professional reputation.

The Thinking 30something is nowhere near that level of renown, but I do get concerned when I can’t stick to my posting schedule.  I worry I will look flaky, lazy, unprofessional, and unambitious.  All of that is false, but it’s something I struggle with.

What I do when I know I’ll be unable to blog is to literally “warn” readers in a post.  If it’s one of those things that slides off the plate, well that’s a little tougher.  I acknowledge that slack and try to avoid it in the future.  And I try not to make a big deal of it.  We’ve all got lives, and sometimes those lives need tending.

Ok, onto the next section!

2.  Clutter and personal boundaries

A really good way to learn, define, and assert your personal boundaries all over the place is to get your home in order. Look to your domestic sphere.  Taking on more than you can manage isn’t just tasks at work or social events.  Sometimes too much *stuff* undermines you ability to do what you need and want to do.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about clutter of all sorts, especially how to get rid of it, making a damn party of getting rid of it, and how good that can feel.  It’s kind of a pet issue for me.  And I think any conversation about professional development or time management needs to include that personal dimension.   Life at work influences life and home and vice versa.  There is a therapeutic value to keeping your personal space organized and manageable.

Order and peace in one space in your life automatically influences others.  I know what this can do to a person, and I’ve had to help out many times with life-change or end of life cleanups.  So I’m personally invested in learning more about managing and disposing of the material excess we all seem to accumulate.  Clutter takes over, it ignores your time, your space, and your needs and desires.  Learning to manage clutter can directly improve your ability to say “enough is enough!” with other boundaries, and learn to draw your lines.

Clutter is:

  • Common: we all have to deal with this in one form or another, from actual physical clutter to “virtual” clutter (when was the last time you organized your Documents folder?  what’s on that flash drive – who knows!)
  • Rational: It makes perfect sense to neglect housework if, say, you’re ill, or caregiving, or working 12+ hour days.
  • Irrational: Clutter is irrational too, in the sense that you know when you have too much stuff laying around, but you can’t bring yourself to do anything because it causes powerful negative feelings – you may literally not be rational, or reasoning fully, when dealing with your clutter.  It is very powerful emotionally, and if you’re cluttering due to an emotional issue, it takes a lot of work to examine and unlearn those mental responses that lead to clutter.
  • Possible to manage: Above all, I want to stress that it’s not only normal to struggle with clutter, but that it’s completely possible to manage it.  There are many fine resources out there that you can learn from.

Clutter takes a lot out of you.  It may seem like “just” inanimate objects, but after a point, it takes over.  Clutter prevents:

  • Clear thinking: I know how this feels…you come home from “one of those days” at work and you need to pay the bills and tend to your neglected personal projects and you can’t focus because your space is chaotic!  You think, “maybe I’m lazy or not motivated” – you’re not – you just can’t concentrate because all the objects are “screaming” at you.  How can anyone hear their own thoughts in a messy room?  Each pile represents a task you must undertake, but all together it’s quite overwhelming.
  • Healthy living: Ever try to dust a cluttered space?  Doesn’t happen.  Ever spill something in a cluttered space, and think you have it all cleaned up?  Probably not – there will be mystery stains.  Clutter prevents actual cleaning from taking place.  If you can’t wipe down surfaces, mop floors, or attend to spills with a minimum of preamble (move pile A here, move pile B because pile A needs a spot so you can mop that spilled milkshake….)  then you’re not going to be able to clean effectively and that will impact your health.  I’m talking allergens, mold, insects, mice, and so on.  Also, if you cannot move around in your space, you may bump into things, trip over them, or simply not be able to travel around your own dwelling (or have emergency personnel get in).  A small path is not enough.
  • Social interaction: If you can’t exist comfortably in your own space, how are you going to have anyone over?  Clutter and the shame it produces can be very possessive, claiming all your space and even time you can be spending with friends and loved ones.

So there’s some food for thought.  Next time, I want to revisit this topic, and talk about specific techniques to manage clutter, and how those can help you continually learn to set your boundaries.

 

See you later!

 

 

Monday Micropost: Using Google Calendar to schedule blog maintenance

Hi everyone!  I’m popping in before my morning begins to let you know of a great scheduling idea for bloggers.

I’ve seen many creative, well-written blogs suffer from what I call BlogBlight:  highly irregular posts.  This can not only loose readers, it looks like the blogger doesn’t care, even if she does.   This is especially important if you’re trying to start and maintain a business using a blog as one of your networking and sales tools.  Or trying to grow a blog all about writing, work, and professionalism.  (Where could I find one of those? hmmm….)

But life does happen, and there will be days you are too busy with other concerns.  That’s ok – it is healthy to deal with life first, rather than make the blog or the twitter feed your absolute top priority.  But one has to be careful to control for the times where the obstacle to writing is not life so much as it’s lack of confidence, or anxiety.   I deal with these two often, and they produce incredibly distracting thoughts that keep me from writing:

  • I’m not good enough
  • Noone will read or if they do, they won’t like it
  • Noone will care
  • I have nothing to offer with my writing
  • I have no talent
  • I don’t have the discipline to do this regularly

I’m quite used to thinking all these things, often all of them at once.  Not fun. The way I deal with that issue  is to make routines.  This works for me since it gives me a sense of security, which allows me to do what I have to do rather than waiting for the mood to be right.  Because some days, if I wait for my brain to shut up, I’ll never write a word.

This is my solution: the blogging schedule.  I have 2 active blogs besides this one, The Diamond Lens and Lady Lazarus Designs.  How can I keep them all active and free of BlogBlight?  I do have plenty of ideas for posts, so writing isn’t an issue.  But that’s quite a lot to juggle.  Enter Google Calendars!

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screencap of my blogging calendar for today

 

These are customizeable, can be color coded, and can have notes attached so they’re not just telegraphic reminders to “blog!!11!” What I did was to make a separate calendar for each blog, assign it its own color, and schedule what I want to have happen with that blog that day.  I’ll try this for a week and see how it works, modifying the schedule as I go along.

Tuesday/Thursday happen to be my Thinking 30-Something days, but I thought a quick little post each Monday might be a good idea.  Especially with a memorable name like “Monday MicroPost”.  So I scheduled that in.  At some point, each Monday, I’ll post something small and useful, rather than my usual essay.

So you can see that today is largely dedicated to my sideline jewelry blog, Lady Lazarus Designs (LLD for short). I’ve scheduled in not just new posts, but social media outreach as well.  It’s ambitious, but flexible:  Since I have 2 days dedicated to LLD, I can let myself fulfill that mini to do list any way that I can.  I can tweet, comment, and post all on Monday, Wednesday, or slice it up how it fits my actual week.

It’s important, when blogging, to remember not just to produce good content, but to actually interact with others.  I struggle with that, so I made it a point to build it into my week.  Eventually, this will become a habit.  But the calendar will be there as a handy reminder.

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Remember to be realistic in your scheduling.  If you’re a slow writer like me, you may only be able to do one original post a week.  And that’s ok – no one expects a writer to be a machine, but we should be consistent.  This has the additional benefit of helping to manage anxiety for anyone else out there that’s dealing with it, and finding that it gets in the way of, you know, doing stuff.

Build in flexibility.  You may notice that I didn’t assign times to these tasks.  That’s because I have a day job and I know I’ll need some downtime when I come home.  But I can rig the calendars to remind me each morning of what I have to do with each blog each day, that way I can be more free with my time, but still get things done.

Visual cues are helpful.  One downside to the old pen and paper list is that it’s static – write it and it’s done.  Sometimes that’s a good thing, but if you have to stare into a screen as much as I do all day, sometimes your mind needs a little boost.  I find that visual cues like chunks of time, color coded documents, and (if you can) font size changes helpful in focusing my attention.  I’m not alone in this.  You did notice I bolded the point of this paragraph, and even started off with it, instead of burying it in my sentences (I hope you did!) I bet you’ll retain that better than if I had made a large, traditional ‘graph!

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So there we are, folks!  Enjoy the first of (hopefully) many Monday MicroPosts!