Saturday, February 25, 2017

Keeping Your Writing Style Up to Date

Have you kept up to date with your writing skills? Unfortunately, after most people leave school–high school, college, or graduate school–they rarely brush up on their writing skills. And while their skills have stayed the same, writing has continued to evolve.

Writing changes about every five years. While most people don’t notice these subtle changes, they’re there, nonetheless. Sometimes, it’s a change in the way people use punctuation while for others these changes may manifest themselves in certain forms of sentence structure.

Probably the way writers use punctuation has changed the most. Take semicolons, for instance. Back when teachers taught that writing was a more formal affair, people used semicolons extensively. Today, many writers use them rarely, as they tend to slow the reading down. Instead, they substitute a period for the semicolon and begin a separate but related sentence immediately following it. Are you one of those who’s still using semicolons?

Another form of punctuation that has seen more frequent use is the dash or more specifically the “em dash,” the longer of the two forms of dashes. This form of punctuation creates a visual separation that readers can easily see at a glance. Also, today’s writers are using commas less frequently.

Lots of things influence changes in writing style, but none more so than the creation and appearance of electronic text, both on the Internet and in E-mail. Instead of writing in a longer, more formal style, writers today use a more concise approach. Writing is tighter and less flowery with fewer longer, more sophisticated words that many readers may not know.

There are lots of ways to keep your writing style up to date. The easiest method is to read more contemporary writing—writing done yesterday not even 10 years ago. And if you really want to improve your writing style, avoid most literature, except the modern variety written after 1930 or so.

You can also enroll in writing classes. Professional dancers constantly take classes to improve their technique and writers should, too. You don't have to enroll in college-level writing courses.  These can be expensive and more time consuming than you need. However, many colleges offer continuing education courses that are just right. Most of these target a particular kind of writing—novels, short stories, articles, etc.  They usually last only a few weeks and don’t have the added pressure of grades that you’ll find with credit courses.

Another alternative is to attend a writing conference. Here, classes are short and intense, usually  lasting only one to three days. These conferences also offer you a chance to learn from other professionals who are experts in their fields.  Do a search for "writing conferences and your area" to find one near you.
Whatever you choose to do, improving your skills will give your writing a boost. 


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Recycling Isn't Just for the Trashman

Recycling isn’t limited to plastics and tin cans. It can play a big part in your writing, too.  Over the years, you’ll gather a lot of information. Too many writers use that information once because many of their teachers drummed the concept of not repeating into their heads. So they use an idea once and forget about it. In the writing biz, that’s not the way to make money.

Information should be a valuable commodity to you as a writer. Whether you write non-fiction or fiction, you can use ideas and the information you gathered to flush them out over and over again. Your files are a gold mine. So if you’re one of those people who can’t stand clutter and throws everything out as soon as you’re done with it, you better think again.

So what are some of the ways you can mine all those ideas and valuable information you have on hand? First, let’s look at the facts—just the facts. If you write non-fiction, you gather a truckload of facts for every article and if you write books, a boatload. That’s a lot of facts to let go to waste. So how do you know where they are when you need them? The answer is a good filing system.

Every article or story you write should have its own folder, both paper and digital. You should put all the notes and clippings and such into the paper folder. Reserve the digital folder for information you find online and for drafts of your piece. The idea of going all digital may be nice, but it isn’t practical. If you don’t have a way of retrieving the information you’ve stored, then you might as well have thrown it out.

For some topics, you may want to create several folders of information, subdividing a more complex topic into categories for easier retrieval. Information you gather for one subject or project may often be used for another on a similar one or a different one altogether. For example, let’s say you’re writing an article about pioneers traveling on the Oregon Trail. First, you’ll gather information about the Trail, itself, then you’ll begin to find information on the people who traveled it.

The information on the former can be used to not only tell the tale of the Oregon Trail when it was at its peak, but also about the remnants of the Trail in the present day. Information gathered about the latter can be used for stories about courage along the trail or articles about particular people or the lifestyle of the early settlers of the West. Right there, you have the material to write any number of stories and articles all based on the same research.

So much for the information you have on hand. But what about all those pieces you’ve already wrote and published? Taking pieces from different articles, for instance, can give you a whole new piece. With some rewriting and revising, you can craft another interesting piece without doing any more research.

And don’t forget about sidebars. Sidebars to one article can become short articles in themselves, especially if you do some quick rewriting to help them stand on their own.

Storing all that information can become a problem. Over your writing career, you’ll gather reference books, clippings, brochures, maps—you name it—and that’s not even considering all the notes you’ve taken on various subjects. But if you organize the material for easy access, you’ll be able to produce a variety of pieces for many different markets during your career.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Keeping Track of Your Ideas

Ideas are the fuel that keep writers going. These might be for future articles, short stories, plays, non-fiction books, and, yes, even blogs. They can be little bits of information, observations, profiles, or full-blown concepts. Unfortunately, the human brain can’t possibly remember them all. In fact, You can’t remember most of your ideas since they seem to disappear into thin air as fast as they appear. In order to keep ideas ready for when you need them, you’ll have to find a way to record and track them.

Keeping track of your ideas could be as simple as creating a folder in your computer in which you save any little tidbit of information that comes along. You probably can see where this is going. Soon you’ll have a folder full of tidbits but not way to tell one from another. So you create more specific folders and file specific information related to one idea category or another in them. Now you have a bunch of folders with tidbits but still no way to know what’s in each.

A rather simple solution to the folder chaos that is to keep an Idea Book–well, actually, a series of Idea Books. This notebook will become your most valuable possession—it will be what keeps you writing.

To start an idea book you’ll have to go low-tech—a standard 6x9½-inch, spiral-bound notebook will do nicely. You can either opt for a thicker one or several thinner ones. If you can find one with built-in tab dividers, all the better. If not, pick up a packet of divider tabs that you can stick some of the pages to create your own sections.

This large idea book will become your main depository for your ideas, but you may also want to keep a small, 3x5-inch, spiral-bound notebook that you carry with you. Then you can periodically skim over the ideas in it and transfer them to your larger Idea Book.

So exactly what should put into your Idea Book? First and foremost are lists of ideas on  particular topics. This is where the dividers come in handy. Perhaps you write a regular blog. You can’t come up with topics off the top of your head without some research. Your Idea Book will allow you to keep an ongoing list of ideas for future blogs. As soon as you finish writing your latest blog, you should take a look at the list and decide which topic you’re going to tackle next. This is also a good place to keep a log of all the blogs you’ve written so far in the order you’ve written them, so that you don’t repeat yourself.

Your Idea Book is also a good place to focus your ideas. Sometimes an idea is way too broad, so you may have to focus it down to its essence. It’s in this process that you can play around with variations on the topic—different slants, possible fiction adaptations, even Web page ideas. Most writers never write about a topic just once, and neither should you.

Another part of any good Idea Book is the resource section. Here, you should jot down information about library books you’ve borrowed in case you need to borrow them again and the addresses of Web sites that contain pertinent information about subjects I write about.

Lastly, you can use your Idea Book to brainstorm possible markets for your work.  This might be just a list of places where you can post your blog. If you write for magazines and such, you may also want to produce diagrams that help you figure out who will be reading your pieces and which markets cater to them.

The techies out there may argue why not use a tablet or phone to do the same thing.
While you can handle some of your items in your idea book—lists of ideas, Web sites, library books, and such—brainstorming, focusing, and figuring out who will read your work is best done on paper. Perhaps you can figure a way to combine the two.

For the digital side of things, you’ll most likely have to use an app, otherwise you’ll be using several programs to do all that an Idea Book entails. One that really works well is Evernote. This little program allows you to create messages to yourself, as well as to-do lists, but it also goes beyond what you can do with just a standard paper Idea Book.

With Evernote or some app like it, you can also clip parts or entire articles from the Internet and save them to it. Then you can go back later and read them. It also allows you to create categories in which to save information. With the free version, you can only save to two digital devices—a desktop and laptop, laptop and phone, laptop and tablet. But you can go for the deluxe paid version which allows much more flexibility.

You can certainly use your smartphone to record ideas on the go, as well as saving Web sites for review later.

Choose whatever works for your situation and digital expertise level. Whatever you do, get your ideas organized. And you’ll keep writing forever.