Saturday, May 28, 2016

Stop, Look, and Listen

“Stop, Look, and Listen.” Everyone is familiar with these signs at railroad crossings, but those same words can also help you improve your writing.

Know when to stop. That’s probably the primary thing that separates beginning from seasoned writers. In the beginning, you sometimes feel that when you’re on a roll, you should just keep on going. But learning to know when to stop writing will help you write tighter and avoid rambling.

While it’s important to come to a logical conclusion, it’s just as important to say what you have to say in a compact way. Back in the mid-1990s, writing for the Internet caught many professional writers off guard. Many had been used to writing longer pieces for magazines, but the writing for Web sites required them to write short articles. For many, writing shorter meant working harder because they didn’t have to write as compactly before.

When you’re involved in writing an article, story, or book, do you take the time to look at the piece overall? If you try to do that while you’re writing, it can be distracting. Instead, put the piece aside for while. Doing so will give you some distance from it, thus giving your brain time to forget it for a while. Reading over your work at another time gives you some perspective—a chance to see the bigger picture. It’s then and only then that you’ll be able to tell if what you’ve been writing makes sense.

Join a writers’ group and listen to what the other members have to say about your work. It’s important that any group you join has a leader whose skills are more advanced than those of the members of the group. Only in this way will personalities not enter into discussions as much, thus resulting in more honest critiques. Learn to listen to what others have to say about your writing while at the same time learn how to constructively critique others’ work.

Of course, some members of the group may dwell on grammar and such. That’s good, but you also want to encourage feedback about your content, length, and style. The real purpose of joining a writers’ group is to improve each others' writing, not to massage egos.

Also, listen to authors by reading their work. Learn to read like a writer, being on the lookout for techniques that you can use in your own work. Really listen to the way another writer tells his or her story or the way they delve into a subject in their article. Most people read an article, for instance, without looking at who wrote it. You need to be aware of the writer and be on the lookout for other works written by the same person.

Pay attention to how other writing sounds. If you like the way a piece reads, read a section out loud to yourself or into a digital recorder. Then listen to it several times to pick up its rhythm and style. Really listen then try it in your own writing.

You might also consider taking a writing class to help improve your skills. If you’re just starting out, take a good foundation course in creative writing, for example.  But if you’ve been writing a while, take classes focused on the type of writing you do. An alternative is to attend writers’ workshops and conferences.

When you finally get your big break, and an editor wants to work with you, be sure you’re ready to listen. Don’t be defensive. Don’t be argumentative. Listen. Listen to his or her feedback. Most editors have enough experience under their belt to know a good writer when they come across one. Even if your work is a bit rough around the edges, a good editor will work with you to improve it. They want what’s best for you and your story, and good editors always have a vision for what your article, story, or book can really be. Listen to them and let them guide you.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Spit and Polish

Most beginning writers don’t bother polishing their work. Is it because they don’t know that they should or that they’re lazy? Most likely, it’s the former. Just like you, they’re eager to write great stories or articles and send them out to be published. But a novice’s eagerness is usually met with rejection—lots of it. Instead of giving up, rev up your determination and make things happen in your favor. To do this, you’ll need to polish your work.

The word polish originally meant to make something smooth and . In writing, polish can mean to improve or perfect or refine a piece of writing by getting rid of minor errors—errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure.

Polishing writing is much like polishing your shoes when your prepare for a special occasion. You polish your shoes because you want to look our best. And because you want your writing to be its best, you should polish it so that you make it as easy as possible for others to read it.

You can use two of your senses to see how well your writing is "working"—hearing and seeing. As you read, listen to see if your writing makes sense, if you’ve left out a word, or if you want to explain a bit more.

You can also read your writing aloud to someone else, such as a family member or a friend. Ask your listener to see if your story or article makes sense. Count on that person to hear what you can’t.

Professional writers often create their own list of trouble spots, typically a list that they use to guide their polishing. You'll want to create such a list for yourself. Are your sentences so long that they’re hard to read? Or perhaps so short that one sentence doesn’t seem very well connected to another? Do certain spelling words always seem to trip you up? Do you have difficulty with endings or beginnings?

Before you can begin polishing, you’ll need to proofread your piece. But before you do that, you need to revuiew the content of your piece. Don’t try to proofread your draft while you edit the content. Divide this into two separate procedures.

Start at the beginning and read your document through slowly, focusing on what you’re trying to say. Make sure your document makes sense as a whole, and that you’ve developed each point. When you’ve spent a lot of time writing a piece, it’s easy to get caught up in the flow of your work, but the human brain doesn’t read every word of longer pieces. Instead, it skims for meaning.

Does your article or story follow the stylistic conventions of the type of content you’re writing, such as the inverted pyramid for news articles? At this stage, focus on the message you’re trying to convey. If you’re having trouble reading for content errors, make an outline of the points you intend to make before you read your content. This is especially important if your piece contains historical information which you’re trying to present in chronological order.

Next, focus on fixing grammar, spelling, and awkward phrasing. To find even minuscule errors, read each part of your text separately by taking each sentence out of context. Make sure each one is grammatically correct.

During this phase of the process, look for incorrect punctuation, especially commas and quotation marks. Also, look for mixed up homophones like “there” and “their,” or “two,” “to” and “too.” And don’t’ forget to check for overused adverbs and passive voice.

Lastly, look through your piece and see if you can upgrade any of the words, especially replacing two words with a dynamic one.

Friday, May 6, 2016

While Facebook is probably the most widely known social network on the Web, it’s not the only one of use to writers. Facebook takes in everybody, not just one group. Sure you can create a professional page, but it’s main purpose is to connect people. As a writer, you may want to socialize on a more professional level, targeting those who can help advance your career. For this, you need to join LinkedIn, a social network of business professionals.

Unlike Facebook, the people that use this network come from all sorts of professional careers. You’re more likely to find editors, publishers, and public relations consultants here. But it takes time to build a useful network of contacts, so be patient.

Look at LinkedIn as a tool in your marketing arsenal, not as a fast way to get to an editor or agent.

As with other social networking sites, you have a profile page and a network of connections. You can also join groups, pose questions to your network/groups, post events and add widgets, such as your blog feed, to your profile.

LinkedIn creates visibility for what you do and offer. Your profile will appear in search engines and can be accessed by the public if you allow it to. The site also allows people to publicly recommend your professional work. Used wisely, it’s an effective and dynamic way to network and spur new ideas for promoting your writing.

As with Facebook, you’ll be able to create a profile on LinkedIn. But instead of posting your resume, show what you’ve achieved—examples of your work and excerpts from your books.

LinkedIn has a feature that other social networks don’t have. It allows its members to recommend other members to confirm the type and quality of their work. In getting work as a freelance writer, recommendations from editors, publishers, and publicists are important.

Like Facebook, you can post helpful articles, tips, and share links to sites that you think your followers may be interested in. And don’t forget to periodically link to your own Web sites and blogs and other places online where your work can be found.

Twitter is a mini-blogging network that is probably the least useful for you as a writer. First, you’re limited to 140 characters, plus a photo, which doesn’t give you much space to leave a detailed message like Facebook or LinkedIn. v

If you choose to use Twitter, follow people or companies that can offer you entertainment, information, promotion advice, inspiration, or news. Agents, editors, publishers, other authors, publicists are tweeting.

When you follow someone on Twitter, they generally respond in kind. This is true whether you’re following your cousin or the Washington Post. In order to send a message to a fellow tweeter, you must be following him or her.

With Twitter, it’s important for you to know why you’re tweeting. Are you doing it for fun,  to engage potential readership, to drive people to your website, or to spread the word about a giveaway or an upcoming book?

Use to add links to your tweets. This site turns unwieldy URLs into more manageable ones, helping you fit links into Twitter’s 140-character limit.

Above all, figure out how posting to Twitter will fit into your overall promotional strategy. You’ll find you won’t have the time to post to a group of social media sites, so choose which ones you use wisely.