Tag Archives: writing exercises

Recommended Reading: Writing is My Drink

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The Book: Writing is My Drink, by Theo Pauline Nestor

The Take-Away: An amazing blending of memoir and writing instruction, this book goes above and beyond the call of duty, helping writers find their voice by learning how Nestor found hers.

The Review: Some people working in nonfiction, crusty old journalists like myself included, grow a bit antsy when the damnably vague word “voice” is thrown around in a how-to book on writing. And yet we all know what it means, and how important it is in the success of a story, especially in first-person pieces or in genres like memoir. It’s hard to teach voice, I thought before reading this book. As with literal voice training, one shapes one’s voice by listening to it during repeated practice attempts, no matter how off-key or squeaky those attempts might sound.

While developing a distinctive writing voice is still seems challenging, Writing is My Drink is a tonic that will steady the nerves through Nestor’s accessible prose and provocative writing prompts.

 

Theo Pauline Nestor, author of Writing is My Drink.

Theo Pauline Nestor, author of Writing is My Drink.

The book, on its most surface level, tells of the author’s journey as a writer and how she went from struggling dilettante to successful writer and writing teacher. But this isn’t the type of writer’s memoir where you feel as if the writer is now standing off to the side, detached from the memories and the effort it took to get where he/she is now, and chuckling with some sort of holier-than-thou attitude. Nestor takes us back to the trenches of her early writing days, and reveals her vulnerability and off-the-mark attempts as she learned her craft.

What separates Nestor’s volume from so many others in this genre (and I should know – I own most of them produced in the last decade and a half) is her commitment to unflinching honesty, both in what she shares from her past and what she encourages the reader to mine for their writing material.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Nestor is in the middle of discussing what led up to the creation of her first published work of fiction …

“What does this have to do with finding my own voice? With your finding your own voice? Everything. Because it isn’t Bach string quartets and split-shot nonfat lattes and generally placid conditions that being us to our own voices. That’s what we think will get us there. That’s what we want to get us there. … But for me it was more like running through fire, feeling like you’re going to totally lose it, then trying to act like it’s a regular day when you show up at Starbucks with your laptop. And that’s pretty much what happened the day that I felt like my real voice was starting to show up on the page. I didn’t get there with the two advanced degrees in English … I didn’t finally get there because I wanted it. I got there because I was desperate.”

 

Also outstanding are Nestor’s writing prompts/exercises. I often find prompts esoteric or unappealing, but as with the exposition and narration in her chapters, the exercises encourage the reader to dig deep and write about things that really matter them – a key feature in developing a distinctive, coherent voice. I especially liked her set of prompts related to building community and companionship into one’s writing practice, because I think that’s an aspect of writing that often gets ignored in favor praising a writer’s ability to slave away alone in their garret.

Author Gretchen Rubin, in her testimonial on the paperback cover of Writing is My Drink, compares it to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and I have to say I agree. On a personal level, both books really resonated with me due to their honesty and dedication to getting at the truth of one’s life. If you’re looking for a book that will help you translate what you feel in your heart onto the page, you may very well find Writing is My Drink to be your cup of tea.

 

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Write this Way, Condensed: Top Writing and Editing Links for February 24, 2012

Photo courtesy of SXC. 

Improving your writing by resting | Jeff Goins
Carol Tice, guest posting on Jeff Goins’ blog, presents a convincing case for taking one day off (and she means *completely* off) from writing and engaging via electronic devices each week.

Five Ways That Consistency Matters | Intelligent Editing
Geoff Hart explains why stylistic consistency matters, especially in the case of numbers (two vs. 2), capitalization, and word choice. I love his explanation about capitalization, since my pet peeve as an editor is inappropriate capitalization …

“In Western languages, capitalization indicates the start of a sentence or the presence of a proper noun. Changing from a capitalized form to a lowercase form triggers the reflex to ask whether the author has switched from discussing a named entity to a generic category. Each such hesitation slows reading, impedes comprehension, and increases the risk of an interpretation error.”

This post might come across to some as a little overly technical, but it’s good stuff for writers and the copy editors who serve them.

10 Must-Haves For Your Mobile Reporting Kit
Elana Zak, posting on the 10,000 Words blog, provides a nice summary of the tools that a 21st Century reporter needs to do his or her job. Some are obvious (mobile phone, business cards, a case to carry your gear) but some are not obvious to those who haven’t been out in the field since the rise of the smartphone (extra memory cards, a USB microphone). And her suggestion to bring a mini first-aid kit is just good common sense!

26 Tips for Writing Great Blog Posts | Social Media Examiner
Social media consultant Debbie Hemley takes readers from A to Z with good advice about writing blog posts that get read and shared. I’ve been blogging since 2007 and I learned a ton! Some of my favorite sections are Categories, Descriptions, Original vs. Curated Content, and Valuable Content.

Want to Make Money Online? Here’s What Sells | Online Journalism Review
Online journalism expert Robert Niles discusses five alternatives to paywalls for web content that can generate revenue for journalists. They include advertising, e-books, videos, merchandise and events.

“Write What You Know” Does Not Mean What You Think It Does | Fuel Your Writing
Icy Sedgwick discusses the old saw to write (fiction, especially) from your own experience, and helps readers go beyond the literal implications. Here’s a sample of her advice:

“Don’t take (the directive to write what you know) so literally – I’m pretty sure Tolkien didn’t have to go to Middle Earth, and JK Rowling never went to Hogwarts! The fundamental fact is that what you know is humanity, and how the world works, and human nature is fundamentally the same. While we all have different drives, desire, fears and goals, we have the same basic needs. The setting is just window dressing … characters need to be believable, even if they aren’t based in our reality.”

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Write This Way: Writing and Editing Links for October 23, 2008

Photo courtesy SXC.

Two perspectives on blogging and journalism, two calls opportunities to submit your work to be published online, and one very solid entry on the importance of craftsmanship in a freelance writing career are the catches of the day for our ongoing writing and editing link-fest.

First, over at Columbia Journalism Review, an article by Ann Cooper reviews the impact that bloggers are having on mainstream media reporting. In “The Bigger Tent,” she covers shifts in the way organizations outside of journalism are treating bloggers, and the issues this trend raises for mainstream journalists. Along with many pundits, she concludes that the journalist-versus-blogger smackdown is over, but Web logs continue to reshape what journalism, as a profession, really means. In this segment, she quotes NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen.


“These days it’s more the act of journalism that gets you entry into the tent, not whether you’re doing it every day, or doing it for pay….Does this mean we’re one big happy family in the big new tent? Far from it.

“In an interview, Rosen said many bloggers still fume that they have second-class status; even when (bloggers) break news, ‘there’s still a sense that a story hasn’t really arrived until it’s picked up by the mainstream media.’ And while some traditionalists may be enjoying the breezier writing style that blogging allows, they wonder what it’s doing to journalism’s hallowed standards.”

Overall the article lays out the current trends and tensions quite well, and seemingly with little bias for or against blogging.


For those who have already recognized that journalism and blogging don’t have to be an either/or proposition, there is a 7-part series over at the Online Journalism Blog that covers the results of a survey of 200 journalists in 30 countries who blog. Posts cover topics ranging from blogging’s role in generating story ideas to its impact on the post-publication “life” of a story. This series might be quite useful for writers wanting some ammo to gain permission to start a blog associated with a print or online publication.

The Writing Journey blog has been posting a series on “How to Start Your Freelance Writing Business,” and has an especially good post on honing your craft. Author Bob aptly summarizes the need to take the skills and technique involved in writing for Internet sites seriously and offers several good tips on how to do it, including my favorite:

“You write. Plain and simple. Write every day. Write many kinds of things, test out different ideas, and see what you’re capable of and interested in.”

Amen. I would add that there are all sorts of great resources for writers wanting to improve their craft, including the book Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark, and the old stand-by On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

Finally, here are two links to calls for writing submissions you may be interested in:

BREVITY: Searching Through the Blog Fog

BREVITY, a magazine featuring short works of creative nonfiction, has put out a call for short nonfiction narrative blog entries. The deadline for submissions is Oct. 31, and authors whose work is chosen to reprint in “The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume 3,” edited by Lee Gutkind, forthcoming in August 2009 from W. W. Norton. Those bloggers chosen as contributors will receive $50 for one-time reprint rights.

Shortfolio

If brief fiction is more your style, Shortfolio, a blog/website which publishes short stories of 500 words or less, has put out a call for new submissions. The only requirements are that you meet the word limit, would like to have your story commented upon, and that the story not have been published anywhere else beforehand.

 
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In Praise of Zero Drafts

Photo courtesy SXC.

I’ve been told by freelance writers, when I describe to them my approach to writing, that I write like an editor. Perhaps I do.

One time I was comparing notes with one of my writers, and she told me that producing copy is never an issue for her—but she chokes on editing her own work, to the point that she hires an editor friend to polish her work before she submits it for publication. I, on the other hand, typically have to squeeze out my first draft. But once I have something out on paper, I can edit, rearrange and manipulate the content to my heart’s content—even with, or perhaps especially with my own writing, I feel that everything is negotiable once I have a draft to play with.

If you tend to choke on producing early drafts, learning how to write a “zero draft” may be a path out of writer’s block. A zero draft is what you write before you write the rough draft. It’s a no-structure, no-holds-barred, no-one-is-gonna-see-this brain-dump that lets you exorcise the demons (or angels) of this particular story, so you can see what you have and begin structuring your material. It’s the functional equivalent to dumping a box of Legos out on a table to see how many pieces (and what kind) you have before you begin building something.

In their amazing work, “Coaching Writers,” Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry recommend that newsroom editors working with writers who can’t figure out where to begin their stories to write a zero draft in the form of a short note to the editor, describing what information they gathered during their field reporting. The technique gets the focus off wrestling with the structure of the story, and pours it into a format that everyone understands—the personal letter.

For example, “Dear Liz, I went to report at the Democratic National Convention, but got stuck in a five-hour traffic jam. I stepped out of my car and talked to Denver commuters about how the convention is impacting their city. Some people loved it and the money it was bringing in, some people hated how it brought the traffic and city services to a screeching halt, but everyone had an opinion about what a mega-event like this one does to a city the size of Denver. By the time I got to the convention, I felt as if this was the story, and not what was going on at the convention center. Sincerely, A. Writer.”

In just a few sentences, our writer has identified a story line, key points of interest (perhaps useful in the lead or nut graph) and even a bit of a tentative structure (perhaps point-counterpoint, or issue-by-issue debates on the impact of the event?). If he or she had been trying to cook up a great first-person sight-and-sound lead, he/she might have lost track of the other details, or how they would support the flow of the story once their lead anecdote was over.

Another zero draft technique, as I alluded to earlier, is the brain-dump. This could be a list of anecdotes, facts, quotes, descriptions, etc., that you found gripping or which you can’t get out of your head in relation to your story. Do not try to write a lead, a nut graph or transitions that will survive into the rough draft. Just get what you know on paper.

Put your zero draft away long enough to do a load of laundry, mow the yard, drink a beer—whatever—then come back to it. You need time away to let your brain work on the structural part subconsciously. When you’re ready, review your draft, circling repeating patterns, good bits of description or exposition, information that naturally works as a transition, belongs in the lead, etc. You can use your notes on the zero draft to create an outline/mindmap/storyboard for the piece, or you can just refer to it as you do your first real draft—since now have now made your thinking visible, you can sculpt it to serve the needs of your assignment.

Another technique that can get you over the what-to-write hump is known as “scaffolding.” This is useful when you have a pretty good idea what to say but you’re not as sure where to jump into the story. Roy Peter Clark discussed how he used this technique recently to write an article about the late Tim Russert; it’s a great way to acknowledge that your story will change from draft to draft, and to write your way into the story.

Learn More about Zero Drafts

Speed Writing: How to Master the Zero Draft: a good introduction to zero drafting from PeakWriting.com.

Ask the Dissertation Diva: Zero Draft Writing: Another take on zero drafts, from the perspective of academic writing.

List Your Main Ideas in a Zero Draft: This brief article, posted at uliveandlearn.com, shows some ways you can use analog paper-based methods to repurpose your zero draft as a story map or visual outline of your work.

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10 reasons to keep a writer’s notebook

Photo courtesy SXC.

I’ve kept a writer’s notebook for about 3.5 years. In that time, I’ve written successful queries, created two new blogs (this one and Creative Liberty) and significantly expanded my writing and editing work. I’m a big advocate of every writer carrying a notebook with them that they write in daily, or nearly daily.

Here are 10 reasons starting a writer’s notebook can charge up your writing work.

1. You can capture ideas before they’re gone. How many times have you had a great idea for an article, film, play, whatever, only to have it slip away before you got it committed to paper?

2. You can record sensory impressions while they are fresh. Often, what separates functional writing from truly great writing is the verisimilitude of the details. With a notebook at hand, you can capture a scene as it unfolds and not worry later if you got the color of the sky, or the color of baggy pants the strange smelly guy on the bus was wearing, right.

3. Writing your ideas down by hand is different than typing them in on your laptop.

4. You can track the development of your ideas from start to finish (even if this takes several notebooks for “big ideas” such as books!).

5. Storage and transport can be easier than computer based methods (I’m still a little leery of taking my laptop on a hike over rocky terrain).

6. Having a notebook handy makes it easier to record brain-dumps and zero drafts–which results in less blocking when it’s time to hit the computer and type a rough draft.

7. You can add mind-maps, storyboards and clippings to your notebook easily, making a neat analog multimedia experience for your story development process (think scrapbooking).

8. You can conduct an impromptu interview or write down all those stray research leads that can get lost if you depend on memory or texting your e-mail or another one-off sort of digital method.

9. Writing daily, in your own handwriting, cultivates an intimacy with your writing voice. You can find, and then fine-tune, your authentic tone.

10. Writer’s notebooks are a great place to experiment with new ideas, approaches, divulge your secret thoughts (at least to yourself) or practice a new technique in a pressure-free, private arena.

Helpful links related to keeping a writer’s notebook:

Daybooks: From the site LiketoWrite.com. A meditation on the value of “daybooks,” a personalized writer’s notebook. The term was coined by the late great journalist and writing coach Don Murray.

1000 Journals and 1001 Journals: A fascinating collaborative journaling project that has made its way around the world and spawned a book and documentary. The websites feature scans and photos of the pages of many of the journals.

Moleskine: The favored brand of notebook for many a writer.

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