Monthly Archives: April 2015

Developing Your Writing Style

develop writing style

Sometimes, you can come across a piece of writing in a magazine or a book, and, without looking at the author’s name already know who wrote it. Who else but J.D. Salinger could write such agonizingly existential yet scorchingly judgmental phrases? There’s a reason why Gabriel Garcia Marquez is credited with inventing magical realism. Who but Elizabeth Gilbert makes you feel like you’re reading your best friend’s diary? Would anyone ever mistake Normal Mailer’s work for Toni Morrison’s?

You can pick these voices out from a crowd because they are from writers who have a distinct writing style.

But why does that matter? Why do I need a writing style?

Your writing style is your trademark. Whether you are a blogger, a content writer, an academic or a novelist, developing a style is an important step in your writing life. It not only helps you grow your brand, it also helps you write more and better. If your writing voice is already well-honed, it’s easier for you to jump into a new piece. You start to lose that fear of “how do I begin?” Your writing voice, once it’s developed, serves as your guide.

So, how exactly do you develop a writing style? Here are some tips:

Read a lot of other people’s work

Read a lot of the genre you want to write. Gather a collection of the top writers in that area and read their work. Don’t read for information or entertainment. Dissect their work to determine their style. A blogger who always includes interesting personal experiences that tie to his theme vs. a blogger that tends to quote a lot of stats and news stories. A horror fiction writer who goes right for the gore vs. a horror fiction writer who sets up a creepy psychological landscape. An academic writer who has a conversational tone vs. an academic writer who is more conservative and scholarly in tone.

Keep dissecting and notice more about the tone. Does one writer tend to be humorous while another tends to plummet into political apathy? What are key words and phrases they might tend to us? Are their sentences long and descriptive or short and informative?

Now read your own work

If you’ve already written some pieces, be it blog posts, essays or even books, go through some of your own writing with the same discerning eye. Pick out things you notice about your own style: key phrases, tone, sentence structure and length. Do you get to the point right away or do you take your time building a case? Do you tend to write long descriptive passages or are you focused on action and moving the story forward? What are the things you want to change? What are the things you want to develop more?

Write what you know

This is what most authors do anyway. Your surroundings are often your inspiration. Even fantasy and science fiction sometimes have characters and settings culled from the author’s real life. Writing what you know already takes some of the pressure off of having to imagine a unique story. Write an autobiographical piece about your family. What do you have to say about where you came from, how you grew up? Let loose and don’t hold back. Don’t think about how someone would feel if you wrote that about them. Say exactly what you think.

Having the courage to tell the truth is perhaps half the battle to developing your style. Have you ever read any of David Sedaris’ work? It teems with jaw-dropping anecdotes about his family. Totally no holds barred. Sometimes I cover my mouth in delight and then wonder, “How could he write that about his mother? No, how could he publish that about his mother?” That is his style: caustic humor and brutal honesty. Starting with writing about something familiar is a good way to develop your own writing style.

If you’re writing content, the same holds true. Don’t try to write content about technological gadgets when your background is in Italian Renaissance Art.Write what you know. A writer can write just as eloquently about technology as another writer writes about art. The trick is to be familiar with your subject.

Have the guts to be yourself

Writing takes a lot of courage. You are exposing your thoughts, opinions, fears, emotions and, sometimes, your soul to a group of strangers. Who may actually behave very cruelly in their criticism. In order to survive as a writer, you have to be able to get past your fear of judgement and failure and have the guts to express yourself. In your own way. Not in a way that you think someone would like. In the way that you like.

Like any other endeavor, be it becoming a star athlete, a world class opera singer or a celebrated painter, you must have courage. What if Jackson Pollack thought, “Oh no, I can’t develop this drip paint style. Nobody will like it. Nobody will understand it. I’d better just paint some landscapes.” Don’t be afraid to develop your voice. It’s the unique gift that only you can give.

Freewrite

Doing freewriting exercises can really help uncover your writing style. In freewriting you’re tapping into your brain’s subconscious and letting out anything that comes up. Without filters or worrying about spelling or grammar or if something even makes sense, you’re spilling out a raw form of your writing style. Do a lot of freewrite exercises over the course of a month and see if you can determine a common thread in them that you want to pick out and develop.

Find out who you are

Well, this may sound like a tall order, but when you’re developing a style, it really comes down to defining your vision of the world. Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Are you a hedonist or a pragmatist? Are you a poet or a detective novelist? Writers often write because they feel they have something they want to share. What is it that you essentially want to share?

9 Obstacles To Writing a Blog and How To Overcome Them

how to write a blog

1. Writer’s Block

Step Away. Sometimes all you need is a break. Go for a walk, do the dishes, or craft for a bit. You’re looking for a physical activity that requires little mental concentration. This will give your mind a break and let it wander. Don’t be surprised if in the middle of vacuuming your living room an idea hits you. Just like anything else our minds need a reset button sometimes.

Get Stimulated. Talk to a friend, scan your favorite social media, or read a book. Many of our ideas for writing come from our everyday live – whether we consciously or unconsciously choose them. When you’re at a loss for what to write, interacting with fresh sources of information can help introduce new ideas to the creative parts of your brain.

Scene Change. While it’s important to have a designated space for your writing, during about of writer’s block that space can start to feel like a jail cell. Give yourself a mental refresher by moving somewhere new. Instead of your office try the kitchen or playroom. If you have the ability, try a coffee shop, public library, or park bench. Many public spaces – even those outside – have WiFi connections: take advantage of them!

2. Time

Write Every Day. This is a pretty standard rule for writers, but one that can feel overwhelming. Like any other craft, the more you do it, the better you become. However, sometimes this advice seems to imply that we need to produce mass amounts of work (500, 1,000, 2,500 words: hello NaNoWriMo!), but in reality all that you’re asking for is to write something each day – even if it’s only one sentence. The point is to make writing a habit rather than a special activity.

Multitasking. We think we can simultaneously write and check our email, Facebook, and online banking pages. Many of us sit down, intending to write, and end up multitasking our time away. Paid computer apps like Freedom, which stop you from surfing the internet and block social media sites, force you to concentrate. However, if you have tight pockets and willpower, a good rule of thumb is to only allow one window or tab open on your computer at a time.

3. Grammar

Outsource It. Apps like Grammarly will check your work as you write for correct spelling, grammar, and word choice. Bonus: the program also gives explanations as it corrects you, so you have a better understanding of why the suggestion is being made.

Read It. But don’t read it from start to finish. Your brain will skip over all of the mistakes because you created the piece; you’re too familiar with it. For short or very important pieces try reading the text backward (from the end to the beginning); mistakes will become glaringly obvious. For longer pieces try reading them out loud. Again, you’ll hear mistakes you would have missed reading it silently to yourself.

4. Fresh Ideas

Take a page out of someone else’s book. Take a look at other books or blogs you enjoy reading and look for trends. Do you like how they summarize a piece? Do you like the hook they use for their start? Is there a topic that interests you as well? Use what you like as a starting point and make it your own.

Try a new meme. Look for weekly or monthly memes that you can participate in. You can find these via other blogs you read or a Google search for your subject matter and ‘memes’ (i.e. “book blog memes”). Bonus: participating and commenting via the meme will build a larger network.

5. Lack of confidence

You learn something new every day. Always remember that writing, like all arts, involves a constant state of learning. Even in the best writers there is room for improvement. Be consistent in your writing and it will get better with time.

Join a group. Find a writers group online where you can get feedback from others. You’ll find that not only will they offer constructive criticism, but they’ll also offer compliments on what you’re already doing well!

6. No Traction

If a tree falls alone in the forest, does it make a sound? Answer: Who knows? No one is around to hear it. The same is true for your blog. Blogs are a very social space to write in. If you want more people to view and comment on your blog, you need to take the time to view and comment on other people’s blogs as well.

Sharing is Caring. Supporting smaller memes, posting for giveaways, and hyperlinking out to other blogs when appropriate are all great ways to not only support other bloggers, but to put you on their radar to get support in return. Remember, you can also do this via the social media channels attached to your blog too!

7. Word Choice

Go Old School. It’s called a thesaurus. It’s the book that’s kind of like a dictionary but instead of giving you a definition, it gives you a list of other words that have similar and opposite meanings to the word you are looking up. Thankfully sites like Thesaurus.com make using it simple. ProTip: highlighting a word in a Google Doc or Word document and opening the shortcut menu will give you the option for synonyms – it’s a quick and easy way to get a new word.

Rule of Thumb. Never use the same descriptive word twice in a single sentence or within two sentences of its first (i.e. John liked playing on the playground. Playing on the swings was his favorite activity. Changed to: John liked playing on the playground. Swinging on the swings was his favorite activity).

8. Negative Comments

“Bye Felicia”. Sometimes haters are just going to hate. If you receive comments that are purely negative delete them and move on. Remember that you have many readers who enjoy what you write, even if they aren’t so active at commenting.

The Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have done to you. This means you don’t get to engage the commenter. Don’t have an argument with them on the comment boards, don’t email them nasty emails, and don’t go to their blog and trash them there. It will just make the situation worse

Be Clear. Is the comment mean? Or does it offer constructive criticism? Remember, even if unsolicited, a critique of your work will only help you grow as a writer.

9. Idea A.D.D.

A Plethora of Goodness . The opposite of writer’s block and yet just as paralyzing. When we have too many good ideas it can be difficult to pick, concentrate on, or follow through with just one. Try opening up multiple folders, documents, or posts and writing a description of a different idea in each space. Then pick one and devote a set amount of time to it (say 30 minutes) – when time is up you can move on to another idea or stick with the one you chose if your creativity is on point. Bonus: the other documents you started can be great problem solvers when you’re struck with writer’s Block.

10 Essay Writing Tips For College Students

college essay writing tips

Freshman college students often feel overwhelmed by the new set of expectations on their essay writing. What earned them praise in high school may no longer meet the criteria of their college professors. Though the learning curve may be steep, students often find that by their junior and senior years, their essay writing skills have become finely honed.

Here are some tips for college students on how to write excellent essays:

Organize your ideas

Some students need to write outlines in order to organize their thoughts. Outlines are kind of like training wheels that are the teacher’s way of helping you learn how to organize an argument. If you don’t need an outline anymore, you may want to just write down some key ideas and sentences to get you started.

Write your essay out of order

Many students find it difficult to write the introduction first. They know what their argument is going to be and how they’re going to defend it, but they don’t know how to introduce those ideas to the reader just yet. So, skip the introduction and get straight to the body paragraphs. You’ll find that after working through your arguments and supporting your thesis, you’ll have an easier time writing the introduction.

Introductions

Okay, so now it’s time to actually write the introduction. Whether you’ve opted to write it first, second or last, there are good introductions and there are not so good introductions.

Some of them to avoid:

  • General introductions. Introductions like “Human history shows that man has always been obsessed with technology.”
  • Dictionary definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “law” as “the system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and may enforce by the imposition of penalties.” This is not only boring, but it’s stating the obvious. Everyone knows what “law” means. What’s different about your take on the law that will show us something we didn’t know before? That’s an interesting introduction.

Some introductions to adopt:

  • Ask a thought-provoking question. Something that will get your readers thinking about this subject and eager to read your arguments
  • Provide an interesting anecdote.  An anecdote can provide a great lead into your arguments by telling a compelling story.
  • Open with a strong quotation. Sometimes a quotation says it like nothing else. If you have that perfect quotation that will nail the essence of your essay, use it.

Conclusions

Conclusions can be just as tricky as introductions. You’ve done your research, you’ve presented your arguments, and…now what?

A good conclusion should achieve the following:

  • Leave your readers pondering the arguments you raised.
  • Make them feel they learned something useful.
  • Impress them with your knowledge of the topic.

One of the best ways to write a great conclusion is thinking about the next steps of the issue you’re arguing. If you’re arguing about legalizing gay marriage, for example, think about what are some of the next steps involved in this issue. What are the implications for the future?

How to research

Sometimes, a professor asks you to read a specific text and write a paper on it. In that case, you should read that text with the topic question in mind:

  • Take notes on sections that reflect the topic.
  • Use a highlighter to highlight sentences that will support your argument or serve as counterarguments.
  • Write down questions that could provide topics for further research.
  • Ask yourself what may be missing from the author’s argument? What other perspective might they have taken? Have you read other texts that provide complimentary arguments? What have other experts argued?

Avoid plagiarism

There are two kinds of plagiarism: blatant copying and simply rewording an argument. The first one is pretty straightforward and usually completely intentional: you’ve simply cut and pasted someone else’s text into your paper without giving credit. Depending on the frequency and degree to which it’s done, it can result in suspension, grade deflation or even expulsion.

The second type of plagiarism is trickier because sometimes students do this without even realizing it. You should do research and seek out the knowledge of experts in the subject. But you shouldn’t copy their argument and original ideas. The point of writing a paper is to practice coming up with your own argument based on the reading you’ve done.

Don’t over-quote

Okay, so you’ll avoid plagiarism by quoting your sources and giving them credit for it. And the occasional quote from an expert that clearly supports and illustrates your point is fine. But sometimes students rely too much on quoting others that they forget to develop and write their own paper. A couple of well-chosen quotes will show the professor that you did a good job with your research. But littering your paper with quotes will rob you of the chance to develop your own writing style and make it impossible for the professor to evaluate your ability to argue a topic.

Don’t write last-minute papers

Editing and rewriting can do worlds of good for your paper. It will help you work out the kinks in your argument, correct grammar issues, and leave your paper so polished it practically sparkles. But, editing also requires time. Not just for the editing itself but for you to have time away from your paper to let your thoughts settle, so you can look at it again with fresh eyes. Don’t leave your writing assignments to the last minute. Start on them as soon as possible so that you can leave yourself the time it takes to do an A+ editing job.

How to edit a paper

Here are some quick tips for your editing process:

  • Remove any sentences that use the passive voice.
  • Make sure you used the correct version of commonly confused words such as their vs. they’re, your vs. you’re, its vs. it’s.
  • Read each paragraph out loud and make corrections. You’ll be looking for grammar mistakes, awkward phrasing, holes in your argument, missing information to support your argument or miscellaneous information that could be left out.

Works Cited

A lot of students lose points because they haven’t learned how to format the Works Cited page. It’s best to learn it once and for all since you’ll be using it for every paper you write throughout college and beyond. Here’s a source that lays it out simply for you: http://writingcommons.org/process/format/formatting-styles/mla-formatting/608-formatting-the-works-cited-page-mla.

Writing Career: Unvarnished

writing career myths

One of my favorite lines about writing comes from the lips of the sleazy American entertainment lawyer in Bertolucci’s bohemian film Stealing Beauty. Upon meeting the daughter of a famous poet, the lawyer muses, “I think it would be great to just sit around all day and…express yourself.” Well, so do a lot of writers, but, as you’ll see, that’s not exactly what being a writer is all about.

Grand misconception #1: writing is an easy career

If you think that culling original, well-turned and beautiful phrases from the recesses of your imagination, mining the depths of your failed relationships, your childhood traumas, your life’s tragedies and triumphs while staring out the window on a dreary Tuesday is easy, try another career. Writing is hard. It’s so hard that writers go to great lengths to trick and train themselves into writing. They develop habits that they enslave themselves to in order to force themselves to carve out time in their day to write.

Most professional writers set a daily schedule and heed it meticulously. Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Haruki Murakami all woke up at the same time every day and went through the same writing rituals every day, without fail. Many writers set quotas for themselves and don’t do anything else but write until their quota has been met: Norman Mailer, William Golding and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 3,000 words a day, Stephen King writes 2,000 and Thomas Wolfe wrote 1,800. They practice extreme anti-procrastination methods in order to keep themselves writing. In order to meet a deadline for the delivery of his book The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo locked up his clothes to make sure he didn’t leave the house until he had finished his day’s quota.

Even fictionalized versions of writers tend to be tortured. Have you ever seen Michael Douglas in such a pathetic role as when he plays the writer and teacher Grady Tripp in the film Wonder Boys? As the pages of his manuscript pile up, but no closer to finishing his book, he clings to his habit of donning a beat-up old bath robe as part of his writing process.

Or, taking things to the extreme, what about Jack Nicholson’s psychopathic character Jack Torrance in The Shining who became the caretaker of an isolated hotel for the winter so he can have time to work on his writing. As time passes, the situation deteriorates until his wife discovers that for months he’s been typing the same creepy line over and over again, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. In the end he attempts to murder his wife and son with an axe. Just sayin’.

Grand Misconception #2: if I become a writer, I’ll have many friends and will be famous

What about book tours, giving book readings and book signings? Winning awards and prizes? Becoming the “voice of your generation”? Those moments come to few writers if they come at all. Many writers insist that in order to be successful, you have to derive your sense of success from the process itself. It can’t be because of recognition, fame or money. And if that’s what you’re looking for, find another profession. Also, writing is a mainly solitary career, with most of it spent in moments of well-defended isolation, rattling your brain for some coherent thoughts and then getting it on the page before you become interrupted by life’s distractions.

Grand Misconception #3: if I become a writer, I’ll be rich

Writing and job satisfaction don’t exactly go hand-in-hand. If it did, there wouldn’t be so many alcoholic, drug addicted, suicidal writers (see Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful TED speech Your Elusive Creative Genius). And part of that is because writing is an art, but, because we live in a world where artists must sell and commercialize their art in order to eat, it is also a profession. Many writers live with relatively unstable financial situations.

Unless you’ve written a best-seller that’s turned into a blockbuster movie like Stephen King, Dan Brown, John Grisham, J.K. Rowling or Elizabeth Gilbert, then it’s best you get prepared for a bit of a roller-coaster ride in terms of finances. If you manage to get a book contract, you’ll likely get an advance. That advance may be small or generous. Afterwards, you’ll get royalties from the sales, assuming it sells. And when that money begins to dwindle after the initial release, then you’re left wading in shallow water until your next book.

Depending on writing for money is a Catch-22. It’s what most writers dream of, quitting their day job and writing for a living. But, at the same time, it can lead to incredible financial instability that many writers struggle to manage. In fact, there are few published writers who only write books. Most writers have other gigs too, such as teaching writing workshops, freelance writing for magazines and journals or editing other people’s writing. Check out this link on writer’s earnings in the UK and the US to get an idea of the average writer’s salary.

Grand Misconception #4: if I become a writer, people will love my work

Many writers and artists in general are drawn to the creative arts because of their sensitivity. This is the irony of signing up for a career that depends on you exposing your deepest thoughts and feelings and offering it to the world. Many writers have heart-wrenching stories to tell about sending out their work for years and years before they ever got a “Yes.” Some of them save their rejection slips the way that some people save love letters from past relationships. If you can’t handle having your work rejected (and it will be rejected, no matter how good it is, because you won’t be everyone’s cup of tea), then you’ll have a very difficult time being successful as a writer.

Most published writers have had to summon brutal amounts of self-confidence and courage in order to keep knocking on doors to see if someone would accept their work. And that’s before you’re even published. Then, once published, there are the critics. Who may love you or hate you. Or both. While rejection slips are whispered “No”’s, privately addressed to you, a review puts your work and you on public display for dissection. And people read it. For fun. Kurt Vonnegut had this to say about literary critics: “I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.”

So, am I saying you should hang up your dreams of becoming a writer? No, I’m saying that writing is hard work and will likely fill you with moments of dread, despair and self-doubt. But, though the legions of writers out there share these same struggles in the pursuit of their art, they also share something else: the immense gratification of self-expression and creation.