Shelley Widhalm

Archive for the ‘Writing Advice’ Category

Top 10 Tips for Writing

In Writing Advice, Writing Discipline, Writing Goals, Writing Motivation on January 14, 2018 at 6:00 pm

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A new year is a great time to think about your writing plans and goals.

Lists are a great way to get motivated and to turn desires into habits—and to get motivated to write, I resort to my top 10.

Over the years, I’ve collected notes about writing processes and habits from magazine articles and books on writing, writing conferences and workshops, and my own personal experiences. I find these notes to be helpful, especially at those times when I feel discouraged, unwilling or stuck.

From these notes, I’ve generated my top 10 tips for writing and rules to live by to make writing a routine and, over time, a habit that I do without thinking or agonizing about it. I don’t want to have ideas and put them on hold because I’m busy, tired or overwhelmed. Instead, I want to show up for writing, finding that once I got started, I have something to say, a poem to write, or descriptions and storylines to add to a work in progress. It can be sticky or rough at first, but once I write, it seems easier to continue and I’m glad I put in the effort.

Top 10 Writing Tips

  • Write as much as you can, setting a writing quota with daily, weekly or monthly goals, such as writing three to four times a week. For example, make it a goal to write for two hours or 1,000 words in a session.
  • Get rid of distractions and the inner critic, which can keep you from writing by serving as excuses to not write or to invite in writer’s block.
  • Don’t wait for inspiration, because the more you practice writing, the easier it is for words and ideas to come to you.
  • Figure out what is most essential for you to write about. Write about what interests you, what you want to learn about and, of course, what you already know.
  • Have more awareness, using all of the senses when making observations to add details to your descriptions. Take notes for later use.
  • Think about where your writing wants to go, realizing that you’re not in total control of it. Trust your subconscious to make connections your conscious mind isn’t ready to or won’t necessarily be able to make.
  • Realize that rough or first drafts aren’t perfection on the first try. As you write, the story or message unfolds and isn’t readily formed until it’s written. Get the sentences down, then revise and revise again.
  • Accept that writing is supposed to be hard.
  • Focus on the process instead of the results. Enjoy that process.
  • And, last but not least, read. Reading makes you a better writer.

Writing in the New Year!

The start of a new year is a great time to reflect on the best writing advice to find the time, discipline and inspiration to do the hard work of sitting down to write. It’s a great time to make writing a habit through the year of 2018!

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Writing in the New Year (to make it fun!)

In New Year's Resolutions, The Writing Life, Writing, Writing Advice on January 7, 2018 at 6:00 pm

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Zoey the Cute Dachshund poses by a 2018 planner to welcome a new year of writing.

The best part of the New Year is the new planner and seeing all of the blank pages to fill in plans for the next 12 months.

This year, I got the same purple one as I did last year. I tried to go with another color, like pink, but the brand I like didn’t have the nice little silver bookmark, only in the purple and red versions. I don’t want red because it makes me think of fancy dinners and fast cars. I needed a serious color, so really I should have gotten black.

Writing Resolutions for 2018

As I look at my planner with 2018 in gold letters, I think about my resolutions and big plans to make my writing more of a priority, instead of fitting it in when I have time. I plan to work on some novel revisions, giving my young adult novel one final editing pass and one of my literary adult novels two passes, including one through my writers group. I plan to keep on the daily poem challenge. And I plan to continue writing short stories and start drafting a new novel for 2019.

What are your writing resolutions for 2018? To join a writers’ group and stick with it, to write a novel or a few short stories, or to participate in NaNoWriMo, a month-long challenge to write 50,000 words during the month of November? Or if writing is something you don’t like to do and would like to try, start with a class or one-day workshop or meet up with a writing friend to get some tips.

But keeping to a resolution can be difficult—according to the latest statistics, only 8 percent of those who make resolutions follow through. Research shows that the top resolutions are to lose weight, get organized and spend less money.

Sticking to Your Resolutions

Here are a few ways to stick to those resolutions:

  • Pick a resolution that you want to do, instead of something that is good for you or is something everyone else is doing (like writing novels when writing short stories is your preference).
  • Pick one, two or three resolutions instead of a long list that will be difficult to manage or even remember. That way you can focus your efforts on what you really want to accomplish.
  • Write down your goals and visualize what you want to accomplish and how you’ll do it. Put your goals in a prominent place, such as on your desk or the fridge.
  • Make a plan to carry out your goals with smaller steps that can be accomplished each week or month. If writing is one of your goals, start out with 500 words or a half hour and build from there.
  • Be specific, such as planning to write two days a week for one hour each time, or to write 2,000 words three times a week. Set aside a certain time for writing or for your other goals.
  • Check in every so often to make sure you’re meeting your goals and ask if any adjustments need to be made.

As you work on your resolutions, reward yourself as your efforts lead toward tangible results. Writing consistently to make that progress takes some adjustment, motivation and discipline. But then it will become habit and easier for 2019!

Adding Fun to Holiday Blogging

In Blogging, Blogging Advice, Holidays, Writing Advice on December 17, 2017 at 6:00 pm

Birthday(WithSarah)3 04-16How does blogging fit in with Christmas lights and letters, holiday get-togethers and the office lunches with all of the fancy foods?

Blogging weekly, every other week or monthly is a commitment, and the holidays should be a way to celebrate the desire to blog—even if champagne, ice cream or truffles sound more fun. Do both—write quickly and efficiently (or hire someone else to be your ghostwriter/ghost blogger) and still enjoy the holiday cheer.

Regular blogging gives you expertise, and your readers look to your blog and expect to see your content, even during busy times. Blogging is a way to spread your thoughts, ideas, opinions and knowledge and can be used to promote your project, event, company, service or topic of interest.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about blogging:

  • Blogs should follow a schedule. Weekly is best, but monthly is OK. Inconsistent blogging causes you to lose readers and get lower rankings from the search engines. Consistent blogging is a way to give updates and provide new material, while pleasing the engines that prefer fresh content and will give you a higher ranking.
  • Blogs can vary in length. Blogs are considered short at 300 to 500 words and optimal or medium length at 500 to 700 words. Blogs that are 1,000 words or more are considered long or article length.
  • Blogs should have short paragraphs—usually one to three sentences—with lots of bullet points and subheads within the content.
  • Blogs should have original content targeted to a specific audience with new, updated and engaging material. Make sure to follow a theme and focus on a topic or set of topics to sustain reader interest.

How do you make “the rules of blogging” fun? Think of it as work with a reward. Literally, do the writing and then get the truffle or ice cream. Acknowledge the accomplishment, such as by tracking it on a spreadsheet or a check-off list. Make it part of your routine.

Break it up into smaller tasks. Write for a few minutes and then set it aside to make it feel like less work. Write about something that interests you or find an angle that is interesting within the subject that may not be as compelling.

And, best of all, create a blogging editorial calendar with a weekly, bimonthly or monthly plan to identify what you covered and would like to cover. Do this for 2018, turning your holiday cheer into a New Year’s resolution.

Happy Blogging in 2018!

The Writing Puppy Challenge (or getting yourself to write during the holidays

In Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline, Writing Goals on December 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm

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Zoey the Cute Dachshund opens her presents every Christmas and wants more!

Every year, I write a Christmas letter, and every year, I wrap Christmas presents or put them in gift bags with fancy ribbon.

For the first task, I go it alone, but for the second, I have a little helper.

My helper is my miniature dachshund Zoey, who will be nine years on Dec. 20—I got her when she was nine weeks. She grabs at the wrapping paper and shreds it with her teeth, so after a couple of years of this, I came up with a plan—distraction. I gave her vet-approved rawhide that she could chew, while I wrapped presents, including hers of more rawhide, treats, toys and re-gifted teddy bears (she has too many!)

Distraction, especially if it becomes a daily occurrence, doesn’t help with retaining a writing routine. During the holidays, there are the holiday parties and dinners, family get-togethers, shopping, writing Christmas letters and other time-filling activities. Without balance, discipline and a plan, these activities can become a distraction from the main goal—keeping the writing momentum going.

Writing Routines

Here are a few ways to be disciplined in writing no matter the time of year:

  • Buy a planner or use a phone app for 2018 and schedule specific writing days.
  • Write daily, or at least a couple of times a week, selecting a specific time or place to write; i.e. keep office hours.
  • Clock in the hours you write, both for accountability and to acknowledge what you’ve accomplished and add up the hours every week or month and compare them over time.
  • Write for five or 10 minutes in between other activities, using a notebook that you always have with you. Those minutes will add up.
  • Write a writing action plan with goals for the year and check in every few weeks to mark your progress.
  • Take a writer’s retreat, even if it’s in your hometown, setting aside a weekend to focus on writing (maybe as a reward for surviving the holidays or just before everything gets busy).

The Writing Reward

Writing can be a reward once you get started as you mark progress toward your goals and reach those accomplishments, while also being able to engage in holiday fun. I like to see how many hours I spent on writing my novels, writing poetry and revising my work over the course of a year. I can tell when I’ve gotten distracted, and this year, I put in fewer hours, spending a great deal of time building my business.

But this holiday, I’m getting back on track and returning to my original goal of writing at least two times a week and fitting in writing whenever I can. That, to me, is a great present, just as is Zoey in her cute Christmas shirt with a bow in her ears!

Finding Work-Life Balance with Writing

In Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Inspiration, Writing Motivation on November 5, 2017 at 6:00 pm

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Balancing writing with the rest of life is important to avoid too much time in front of the computer and to gather experiences for even more writing.

I don’t like sitting, and I don’t like being in front of a computer—at least for long periods of time.

But I used to not even think about my tools of writing. They were just there for me to use—and replace every so often when they got old and nonfunctional.

I write for a living, and I write for fun with the goal to make the writing I want to do—writing novels—full time. It’s a lot of writing, as a result, but I try to balance it with daily exercise—running and lifting weights—and doing social things.

Balance, how do you achieve it when you work life and dream life both involve computers?

Finding the Work-Life Balance:

  • First of all, make sure you read.
  • Set aside certain times for writing, but don’t guilt yourself if you don’t write.
  • Vary where you write, such as at home, a park, a restaurant or a coffee shop and find something stimulating in that environment to think about or absorb—such as the grinding of the coffee beans or the way the air feels as time shifts from high noon into the afternoon.
  • Take breaks every few minutes to stretch, or take a mini-walk for a mind refresher.
  • Make sure you have free time to do whatever you want that gives you a break from the routine, particularly if it doesn’t involve writing.
  • Try writing in a notebook if computers are your normal tool, or vice versa. The switch may cause you to see and write differently—handwriting slows you down, while typing causes you to lose the pen-hand connection and get lost in the writer’s world.
  • Find a new interest or hobby, or even forge a new friendship, to learn something new or see things from a new perspective.
  • Congratulate yourself when you write when you don’t feel like it.

One Final Note:

Lastly, realize it’s the writer’s life, that constant need for discipline, motivation and encouragement. Make sure to get out to the 3D, real world to gather those experiences that are much needed for the writing life.

 

Why Exactly is Editing Important?

In Editing, Editing Advice, Editing as Part of Writing, Writing, Writing Advice on October 29, 2017 at 5:00 pm

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Once the writing is done, it’s time to take out the red pen!

Editing is part of the writing process, or most definitely should be, even for emails.

Too many errors, and expert status is lowered, and writers look careless, as if they do not know what they’re doing. It gives the message that it’s OK, because everyone else is doing it, so why not join in? There isn’t enough time, or it’s not necessary. It’s just a rough draft, but it needs to be sent off anyway.

If it’s fiction, it won’t get a read if there are too many glaring errors, despite the content. Or if it’s self-published, the writing looks amateurish, making it hard to trust the story and stay on the page—errors cause the eye to stop and notice them instead of the plot, characters and setting.

Editing and a review process are important for all writers, no matter the skill level, because no one can write anything great and perfect the first time. In the least, there could be a typo or a missed word.

Before editing, set aside the writing (unless it’s an email or communication that needs to be immediately sent off) for a day or hire a third party to review the work.

Here are a few reasons why editing is important:

  • To ensure what you wrote matches what you intended to say and that your message gets across.
  • To ensure what you wrote is what you meant to write, instead of what is actually there, such as saying “their,” instead of “there.” It’s harder to see your own mistakes.
  • To tighten up what you wrote, so that there are not repetitions of material or awkward transitions between ideas or paragraphs.
  • To add missing information or to correct factual errors.
  • To make sure the flow of thoughts and ideas is logical and that there is a good structure to how the material is presented.
  • To make sure everything is understandable with the right amount of detail, but not too much detail that attention is lost.

Hiring an editor to do that editing:

Writers can start off by doing a round of their own editing to fix anything they find before hiring an editor. Manuscripts with lots of errors or sloppy writing take longer to edit and, if the editor charges by the hour, cost more.

Or, hire the editor right away, but realize that editing is best done in at least two rounds, one for general editing and a second for proofreading to catch additional errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation and mechanics.

Longer manuscripts generally go through multiple stages of editing, including structural or developmental editing that looks at the entire manuscript, line editing at each individual line of text and then final proofreading to check for any missed errors.

Editing from an outside perspective can be more objective—writers get stuck in their own writing and love it because it’s their work.

The readers, too, will appreciate the editing, showing them that what they’re reading is worth their time and energy. An error won’t make them start asking questions about the meaning, the content or the writer.

 

Editing 101: The Multiple Forms of Editing

In Editing, Editing Advice, Editing as Part of Writing, Writing, Writing Advice on October 22, 2017 at 5:00 pm

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Editing is not a simple, one-step process, especially if the goal is to achieve clean, compelling writing that keeps readers wanting to read to the end.

Editing involves multiple layers from revising the overall structure of the manuscript to slow reading and evaluating at the individual line level. Editing has multiple names for those layers from the big picture of the rough draft to the small picture of proofreading of the nearly clean copy.

The Positive of Editing

When it comes to my own work, I wish I could read it once and think, “Oh, that’s nice,” and go on to more writing. But I know, too, that what I write is a rough draft and not close to the final product.

I find slight comfort in the fact that editing can be similar to writing as sentences, paragraphs and new ideas are added or removed to get to the core of the topic or story, so that there isn’t anything extra or boring or any mistakes detracting from the message.

Editing fiction can add a layer of entertainment with new scenes, sections of dialog or character qualities. For nonfiction, layering in details or inserting additional quotes can bring in more complexity, as long as the addition is tied smoothly to what comes before and after.

Levels of Editing

Here are a few different types of editing from the big picture down to the small detail, along with the tasks of each type:

  • Structural or Substantive Editing: Reorganize the manuscript for content or structure; make sure there are transitions between ideas; and clarify any areas of confusion or lack of data or a missing scene.
  • Stylistic Editing: Clarify meaning; eliminate jargon or awkward word usages; make sure the writer’s voice is consistent throughout; and make sure the entire text and the language within reads cleanly and smoothly.
  • Copy Editing: Edit for grammar, spelling, punctuation and other mechanics of style; make sure details and descriptions are consistent; and make sure the use of language and mechanics are consistent.
  • Fact Checking: Check for accuracy of facts by checking various original sources.
  • Proofreading: Read proofs of edited manuscript or give edited copy a final read-through for errors not caught in previous editing rounds.

Error-Free

The aim of the multiple layers of editing is to achieve clean copy that reads smoothly without too many extraneous details or detracting thoughts, ideas or information. By editing in layers, the idea is to catch all or most errors. This is difficult to do if you’re trying to understand the overall content at a quicker reading pace, while also reading slowly at the line level. The two levels of reading need to be separated into different steps.

Reading in layers allows for different attention levels to the text, so that all of the pieces come together in something that is interesting, readable and compelling from the first line to the end.

Fast Ways to Edit Fiction (or somewhat)

In Editing, Editing Advice, Editing as Part of Writing, Writing Advice on October 15, 2017 at 4:54 pm

To be fast and efficient in editing a short story or novel, it’s helpful to have a checklist and a plan.

The checklist helps avoid overlapping tasks, while also moving through them with speed and careful thought. The seemingly contradictory notions fit together when taking the short and long views.

Editing involves hours of work, but the work can expand if the edits aren’t broken up into parts and instead are carried out start to finish over and over again (the long view). Editing is better off in layers, focused on one step at a time (the short view).

First Editing Round

As a first step, read the entire manuscript through, looking for inconsistencies, areas where the story doesn’t flow or diverges unnecessarily and areas where boredom is the result.

When I edit my own work, if I question needing something, I cut and dump—and put the goners into my Cuts File (because I have trouble letting go). I read for overall plot to make sure things make sense and check for any inconsistencies in character, setting or action development.

Additional Editing

Here are things to look for in each editing pass, or grouped together if it makes sense:

  • Ask if the opening scene grabs the reader.
  • Cut any unnecessary scenes and strengthen weak ones. Make sure the scenes have a clear objective for the character and further the conflict, or opposition, to the objective to keep the action moving.
  • Look for any elements that are incomplete or not carried through, such as a dropped idea, a scene that ends too soon or a character that disappears without explanation.
  • Make sure the plot threads come together. Does the story have a beginning, middle and end? Are conflict and tension sustained throughout the telling? Does the story build with tension at the end of each chapter?
  • Make sure the characters are realistic with good and bad features and that they are distinguishable from one another. Are they fully fleshed out with personalities, backgrounds and unique physical characteristics? Does the reader care about these characters?
  • Ask if the dialogue is realistic and if the characters speak in ways that are distinguishable from one another. Look for consistency, accuracy and any repetitions in their identities, backgrounds and behaviors.
  • Remove any unnecessary back story, especially in the first 50 pages where action is needed to hook the reader, and make sure character histories are not provided too early in the story.
  • Make sure the pacing is compelling and right for the telling of the story.

A Final Thought

Remember, each time you edit, you get closer to the core of the story and the essential components, like a taut rubber band. The story becomes tighter, keeping the reader tense, on edge and ready to keep moving through the story.

Finding Hope in the Poem A Day Challenge

In Poetry, Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline on September 17, 2017 at 5:00 pm

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The Poem a Day Challenge provides a simple method to accumulate a large number of poems.

Writing a poem a day sounds easy.

Just sit down and make up rhymes, rhythms and line breaks—and fill the page, because a poem is just a few words.

Right?

But for me, it isn’t that simple.

During the month of September, I’m taking on the Poem A Day Challenge, an idea I learned about from Placerville, Colorado, poet, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer. Ten years ago, she decided to write a poem a day for one month but extended her effort to a daily, lifelong practice, so far producing more than 3,650 poems.

Wahtola Trommer, Colorado’s Western Slope Poet Laureate, gave a 2 ½-hour workshop, “Rigorous Willingness: Writing from the Unconstricted Throat,” in early August that included poetry advice and writing prompts at the Loveland Museum/Gallery in Loveland, Colorado.

Not Good, But True

Wahtola Trommer said her poems don’t have to be good but do have to be true. For the challenge, she lowered her standards in order to produce a large volume of writing, seeing her poetry as practice.

“You get in your own way thinking it has to be good,” she said.

So far, I’ve written 18 poems and have 12 to go—or thousands if I make writing poetry a daily habit. I, too, lowered my standards, but unlike Wahtola Trommer, I didn’t let any of them go. They all ended up in my long poem file where poems unfold chronologically as I write them, waiting for me to organize and put them into collections for chapbooks—something on my projects list that I keep avoiding.

Share the Poems

In other words, the poems are that practice because they haven’t become product. I haven’t followed through with Wahtola Trommer’s great, yet simple advice: share the poems.

But I will—soon.

I’ve learned that writing daily is a way to get past the fear of rejection that comes with putting work out there, because within the not-so-great poems, there will be those good ones. Produce a lot to find the good poems through being available to them and what they have to say.

Writing and Time Management (to get to that important writing space)

In Writing, Writing Advice, Writing Discipline, Writing Goals on September 10, 2017 at 5:00 pm

(Photo by Steve Stoner/Loveland Reporter-Herald)

Shelley Widhalm in her reporting days chases after a story during a county fair parade, while trying to multitask with her camera.

Considering that I consider myself a writer, I have let time dis-management get in the way of what I love.

Yes, I made up a word for my inefficiency at time management. I’m used to a 9-to-5’er, but starting a business and taking on a part-time bridge job (that’s fun because I get to wear a baseball cap, run around and be busy) has shown me that I’m not as skilled at using my time as I thought. In other words, too often I’ve exhausted myself and gotten overwhelmed, resulting in dreaded wasted time.

When time isn’t well managed, efficiency can be affected as well as how quickly work can be produced and the quality of that work. To feel more at ease and in control, I found a few ways to better manage my work day to free up space and time for my personal writing and to make the most of the writing and editing work I do for my business.

First, I learned I shouldn’t think of all of the tasks I have to do for the next day or week all at once. I tended to blow them up in my mind, thinking something that will take 10 minutes would take a half-hour or longer. I exaggerated, and then I worried, falsely believing that I’d never get it all done.

So, what I now do is break up what I have to do into small chunks, doing the most important things first, using lists to prioritize and get rid of any unnecessary things. With a boss, my tasks list was defined for me, but out on my own in the big world, I had to figure it out, get organized and develop systems. I had to get intimate with the time clock.

Time Management Tricks

Here are a few other things I’ve learned about time management:

  • Focus on one task at a time. Though multitasking sounds trendy and is touted as professional, the brain actually switches from like task to like task but can’t do both at the exact same time. The brain, however, can handle two dissimilar tasks at once, like listening to an audio book while driving. (Check out the “Mindfulness Pocketbook, Little Exercises for a Calmer Life,” by Gill Hasson).
  • Don’t squeeze too many tasks into the day, causing the time devoted to each one to become frayed or frantic.
  • Don’t procrastinate tasks, because with procrastination comes the guilt of needing to do the one thing but not doing it now, resulting in wasted thought time. Plus, the task can be broken into smaller chunks if there is a longer deadline.
  • Devote your entire attention to the task, ignoring email or other distractions.
  • Switch tasks when you get tired or thoughts seem to slow down and come back to it later with a fresh perspective, unless, of course, the deadline is immediate.
  • Mark down how long it takes to do each task—three months into my business, I started tracking how long I spent on everything, devoting a surprising half-hour ad day on email (I’d thought it was less). This helped me identify how long it took for each different task, especially to speed up the process.
  • Set a time limit for each task, but allow for some overage.
  • Don’t get caught up in too many details of the task, spending too much time on any one aspect. Be thorough and accurate, but don’t dwell or aim for 100 percent, absolute perfection.
  • Identify your most productive times of the day and set aside easier tasks or chores that are routine and do not require much thought. Be sure to do something on the weekends, even for an hour or two, to make for less work later.
  • Use waiting times, such as in an office or in line, as a time to do portable tasks, such as jotting down ideas or answering emails.

Fit in the Breaks

And lastly, take breaks, including between and during tasks. A short walk once an hour is ideal to stretch muscles and invigorate the mind and body to get ready for more work.

Some, or all, of these time management ideas can be used for writing. Be sure to set aside time every day or week for writing, so that it isn’t forgotten because of all of the tasks that have to be done. Have a place to write. Squeeze it in when waiting in those lines. Keep a notebook with you. And take pride when you do write, another task accomplished.