How to Write

What? I can Write! Time is of the Essence

Time is of the Essence

Contemplating his imprisonment, Shakespeare's King Richard II laments, "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me..." As writers we need to wake up to the fact that wasted time is one of the most pervasive threats to our success. It kills our productivity and slows down our progress toward achieving our writing goals and dreams. Next to lack of discipline, nothing trips us up as much as wasting time. For that matter, time wasting itself reflects lack of discipline. We work for a while, but then our mind begins to wander and before we know it we are off on a tangent, consuming our writing time with activities or pursuits that add zero value to our productivity.

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It is ironic that the very technological development that has liberated writers to be more productive and successful than ever before has also made it easier to waste time. I am talking, of course, about the computer. Writing, editing and publishing have never been easier than they are today because writers can do it themselves electronically. At the same time, a virtually unlimited number of time wasters are only a mouse click away. A time waster is not necessarily something bad; it is anything that drags you away from your writing unnecessarily. Do you really need to check your e-mail right now? Is it so important at this moment to check the news reports or the sports scores or the weather forecast? All of these and similar activities are fine in their place, but when they distract you during the time you have set aside for your writing, they become time wasters.

Guard your writing time jealously. Be ruthless with yourself if you have to be. Deny yourself those other pleasures until your writing time is done. Fill your writing time with productive work.

© eGen Co 2013 All Rights Reserved.

What? I Can Write? When the Well Goes Dry

“A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”—Samuel Johnson

When the Well Goes Dry

Sometimes there is nothing more intimidating to a writer than that blank page or computer screen staring back at you. You want to write, but when you sit down to do it you discover that suddenly all your thoughts have flown. All your ideas have fled. And that empty page or bare screen silently mocks you, mimicking the blankness of your own mind, daring you to fill it with words.

Every writer goes through dry spells from time to time; it’s part of the game. So don’t get discouraged when (not if) it happens to you. But what do you do when it does?

First of all, don’t panic. Anxiety will only choke off your creative juices as well as undermine your ability to think clearly. Dry spells come…but they also always go eventually. So don’t worry; remind yourself that the drought won’t last forever.

Second, don’t abandon your writing time just because the words aren’t coming. The more consistent you become with your writing habits, the less problem you will have with writers’ block. This doesn’t mean being idle. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Word-association. Pick out a key word from your current piece and write it down. Now take 2-3 and write down every word or phrase that your starting word brings to mind. This may open up a whole new direction to go that will get you off of dead center.

  • Read uplifting, inspirational literature: Scripture, religious devotional materials, motivational tips, poetry, a short story—anything to help stimulate your mind.

  • Take a walk. This is not abandoning your writing time. Sometimes what you need is a change of scene. As you walk, don’t focus on your mental block. Instead, relax your mind and allow yourself to soak in the sights, sounds and smells around you.

What? I Can Write! Time is Golden

“A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”—Samuel Johnson

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Time is Golden

Roman poet Virgil wrote, “Time is flying never to return.” Two millennia later, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow echoed the same thought: “Art is long, and Time is fleeting.” In more recent years, the Steve Miller Band has reminded us that “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.”

Time may seem like a limitless commodity, but in reality every second that passes is a tiny bit of time that we can never recover. I’m not trying to wax philosophical here but simply pointing out that time has a way of getting away from us if we are not careful, and before we know it we discover that things we fully intended to do have gone undone while we tended to other, lesser things. How often have you allowed the tyranny of the urgent to prevent you from dealing with the things in your day that are truly most important?

This question hits home for all of us who write. Many would-be writers complain that they simply don’t have time to write. In a few rare instances that may be so, but for most it is merely an excuse. The old axiom is still true that we will make time for that which is most important to us.

How important is your writing to you? Important enough to give up an hour or two of television or web-surfing every day so you can write? Important enough to get up an hour or two earlier every morning so you can do some writing before work? Important enough to use your commuting time to write (as long as you aren’t driving!)?

Successful writers find or make time to write. The key is to find the time that works best for you and then follow it consistently.

Time is golden! Don’t squander it!

© eGen Co 2013 All Rights Reserved.

What? I Can Write! Ideas and Integrity

“A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”—Samuel Johnson

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Ideas and Integrity

Just as ideas can come from anywhere, they can also take you anywhere you are willing to go. The only limitation is the size of your imagination. French author Paul Bourget said, “Ideas are to literature what light is to painting.” An artist’s use of light is perhaps the single most important element for evoking a particular mood or eliciting a particular response on the part of the viewer. The same basic subject can be dark, brooding and melancholy, or bright, cheerful and celebrative, solely on the basis of how the artist illuminates it. The angle and brightness of the lighting and the placement of shadows, for example, can change the entire aspect of a picture.

In the same way, writers can stir up certain emotional responses in their readers by the way they handle their ideas. Depending on how you use a story idea, no matter what it is, you can manipulate, indoctrinate, stimulate, illuminate, educate, elevate or sedate your readers. When readers willingly open their minds to what we have to say as writers, they endow us with great potential power to influence their thoughts, beliefs and worldview. But with great power comes great responsibility to handle our readers’ trust with integrity. English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “Ideas don’t keep. Something must be done about them.” Ideas are dynamic things; they won’t sit still. Whenever you entertain an idea, it will take you somewhere. Where it takes you depends, for good or evil, on your imagination. What you do with that idea—how you write about it—will reveal how you look at the world and how you really regard your readers. Write with integrity and always respect the integrity of those who choose to read your words. Treasure the trust they place in you and handle it with care.

© eGen Co 2013 All Rights Reserved.

What? I Can Write! Keep Yourself in the Background

“A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”—Samuel Johnson

Keep Yourself in the Background

Part of the magic of writing is creating a world on the page that is so real and so vivid that readers willingly suspend their disbelief and plunge headlong into that world, immersing themselves in its images, sounds and smells; drinking in the whole environment you have fashioned for them until the story ends and they return to the “real” world, breathless and sated but immediately hungry for more. The last thing they need (or want) while in that land of the imagination is to look up and see you, the author, poking your head into that world and saying, “Haven’t I conjured up a dandy little story for you? Don’t you like the way I have put it all together?” All that does is break the spell for the reader with an unnecessary intrusion.

As a general rule, your authorial voice should never intrude on the mood you have worked so hard to create. If you are sharing a personal account, of course, it is different. If you are writing to say, “This is what I saw,” or “This is what happened to me,” or “This is what I believe,” then of course you will be speaking to the reader in “your” voice; this is both inevitable and expected. When writing narrative, however, whether fiction or nonfiction (such as a historical account) you would be wise to keep your personal voice as the author in the background, hidden behind your story. Once your readers have entered the world you have created for them, they are not interested in the “mechanics” (structure) or, for that matter, the “mechanic” (author) of that world. All they are interested in is the story. Keep yourself in the background. Don’t spoil the magic!

© eGen Co 2013 All Rights Reserved.

What? I Can Write! Keep Your Audience in Mind

“A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”—Samuel Johnson

Keep Your Audience in Mind

Any writer who writes to be read—and who wants to continue to be read—must understand and follow one cardinal principle: respect your audience.

Of course, in order to respect your audience, you must know who your audience is. This is why it is so important to identify your target audience before you begin writing. Identifying your audience before you start helps guide the writing process by answering many questions up front, such as vocabulary, style, sentence length and structure, paragraph length, and so forth. If you were writing an article explaining the weather cycle, for example, you would handle that topic very differently when writing for elementary-age children than when writing for adults.

Respecting your audience, then, means tailoring your writing to their level. How do you do this?

First, don’t talk down to them. Don’t insult their intelligence by underestimating their ability to comprehend what you are saying. You can keep it simple without being condescending. Assume the best of your readers.

Second, don’t talk above your audience. While you don’t want to condescend, neither do you want to talk over their heads. Too simple or too advanced; either way, you will lose your audience. Like Goldilocks with her porridge, the balance must be “just right.”

Third, don’t be afraid to challenge your audience to think, to expand their horizons, to enlarge the boundaries of their imagination. Most readers enjoy being challenged in one way or another. They appreciate writers who respect their intelligence and assume their capacity to grow. As writers, we don’t want our readers to walk away the same as they were before. We want to transport them to some new place, to raise them to a new level of knowledge, understanding, experience or imagination. Challenge your audience. They will appreciate you for it.

© eGen Co 2013 All Rights Reserved.

What? I Can Write! Keep Your Purpose in Mind

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“A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”—Samuel Johnson

Keep Your Purpose in Mind

As a writer, you must learn to be ruthless, at least with yourself. One consequence of a fertile mind is that it is always creating and producing, generating new thoughts and ideas and pondering new possibilities. This can both good and bad; good because creative thinking—imagination—is the lifeblood of a writer; bad because not everything your mind produces will be worth using, either now or ever. Much of it will be, though. Great ideas pop up all the time in the process of writing as the “fruit” of a fertile mind. If a new idea supports your theme, plot, or premise, run with it. The problem, however, is that even many of those “good” ideas will not be usable in your current writing project; they simply won’t fit.

This is where you have to be ruthless. When you are writing, keep your purpose clearly in mind. Fix your eyes on the goal and resist the temptation to chase the rabbit of that great idea you just had but which has no useful or functional place in the present piece you are writing. Be ruthless; discard those ideas for present use, but record them for possible future use elsewhere. Don’t ever throw out perfectly good fruit simply because you can’t use it right away; it may provide the seed for another great piece later on. Just as a fruit tree or grapevine must be pruned of excess growth so that more and better fruit can be produced, so you as a writer must prune your ideas and thoughts. Toss out the bad ones, preserve in the “fruit cellar” for future use the good ones that are not immediately applicable, and use only that fruit which advances the purpose of the piece you are writing.

© eGen Co 2013 All Rights Reserved.

What? I Can Write! Keep it Clear

“A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”—Samuel Johnson

Keep It Clear

Clarity is a cardinal principle of effective writing, whether you are writing to persuade, inform, instruct, or entertain. If your aim is persuasion, you must write clearly enough so that your reader understands your argument even if, in the end, he disagrees with it. Informational writing, such as journalism or historical accounts, must be clear so that readers come away with an accurate knowledge of the circumstances and facts of a story. The same is true for instructional writing. If you want to impart knowledge, teach a skill, or give instruction for performing a certain procedure or process, clarity is essential. If your instructions are unclear, no learning will occur. Finally, when writing to entertain with an engaging story, you want your reader to visualize your fictional world clearly in her mind; the sights, sounds and smells of the seashore, say, or the physical features of your characters. Words are your only tools with which to create these images in your readers’ minds, so learn to use them well.

As I said before, good writers are never lazy about language. Some writers work best by rattling off a first draft as quickly as possible, leaving revision and refinement for later, while others write slowly and painstakingly, editing and revising as they go. Either way, all good writers share at least one common trait: they labor—sometimes agonize—over every word and every sentence, writing and rewriting, revising and then revising again, refusing to release their work to their readers until it says exactly what they want it to say. Writing that seems effortless when read almost never is; the writer has worked very hard to make it read that way. Revision is an essential key to clarity; it always improves a manuscript. So don’t take shortcuts. Keep it clear.

© eGen Co 2013 All Rights Reserved.

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What? I Can Write! Five “Keeps” for Good Writing

“A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”—Samuel Johnson

Five “Keeps” for Good Writing

Assuming that you write to persuade, educate, or entertain your readers—that you write to be heard, in other words—here are several important tips to remember.

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  1. Keep it simple. When it comes to style, less is usually better than more. Don’t use more words than necessary to say what you want to say. Don’t use ten words when six will suffice. And don’t use fancier words than needed except very sparingly, for effect. You don’t want your writing to sound like an exercise in using a thesaurus. As a general practice, unless you are writing a scholarly or highly technical piece that calls for advanced terminology, choose shorter and simpler words over longer and more complex ones.

  2. Keep it clear. Think through what you write very carefully. Don’t necessarily settle for the first words that come to mind. Make sure that the words you choose actually convey the meaning you intend. Good writers are never lazy about language.

  3. Keep your purpose in mind. Don’t forget why you are writing. One of a writer’s greatest temptations is chasing rabbits. Stay focused on your purpose. This doesn’t mean stifling your imagination, but it does mean resisting the urge to include anything that does not advance your story, theme, or argument.

  4. Keep your audience in mind. Never lose sight of who you are writing for. Determine your target audience before you begin and tailor every word you write for that group.

  5. Keep yourself in the background. As you write, keep yourself in the background. Don’t distract your readers by allowing your authorial voice to intrude. Strive to write well, even eloquently, but hide yourself behind your story so that your readers will be irresistibly drawn into the imaginative world that you have created and kept there until you release them.

     

    © eGen Co 2013 All Rights Reserved.

What? I Can Write! Writing Au Naturel

“A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”—Samuel Johnson
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Writing Au Naturel

Discovering your unique writing voice does not mean never imitating other writers. Imitation is a crucial part of learning any new skill, whether artistic, athletic, technical, or mechanical. You cannot innovate or improvise without a thorough understanding of the basics. Before you can establish a confident and distinctive writing voice of your own you must build on a solid foundation of fundamentals. It is important to discover the ways in which great writers have expressed themselves. Reading these writers (especially aloud) and then imitating them is a great way to do this. So don't be afraid of imitation; it is one phase on your journey to an original voice and writing style. Just don't get stuck there. Learn everything you can from other writers’ styles and then move on to fashion your own.

On the other hand, developing your distinctive writer’s voice also does not mean that anything goes when it comes to style. If your goal is to write to be read, you must give due attention to accepted norms and expectations regarding such things as language, vocabulary, grammar, tone, and moral sensibilities. These norms will vary somewhat depending on the audience you are writing for. If you are writing for children, for example, you will express yourself differently than if you are writing for adults, especially in such areas as vocabulary choice and length and complexity of sentences.

Your chief goal as a writer is clarity; what good does it do to write if no one can understand you? What you want is to communicate with your readers, not simply impress them with your ability to turn a phrase. Learn to write au naturel—in a style that is natural to who you are as a person and true to your beliefs and values.

© eGen Co 2013 All Rights Reserved.