02/21/2011 (11:55 pm)

Life Experience is the Lifeblood of the Writer

Filed under: Writing Basics |

Recently, someone asked me what makes a good writer (besides the ability to articulate in print).  I thought about that.  Although several things went through my mind as to what it could be that really makes for a great writer, one thing stuck out.  It’s something that an author told me when I asked the same basic question, years ago.

I was in a shopping mall in Orem, Utah and saw one of the bookstores there was having a book signing.  One of my favorite authors at the time, Orson Scott Card, was autographing his latest novel.  I quickly got in line.  I didn’t have any money and couldn’t buy a book, so I dug through my coat to find anything I could have him autograph.  The paperback in my pocket was one of the trilogy from Douglas Adams’ Hitchiker’s Guide series, if I recall.

Card was nice about it and obviously understood that I didn’t have the cash to buy his latest hardcover.  I fumbled through the cliche “I’m a huge fan” garbage and felt compelled to ask “what makes a great sci-fi writer?”  He looked at me for a brief moment, probably used to that general question, and said “Life experience.”

I’ve thought about that ever since.  Another of my favorite authors, Isaac Asimov, said much the same thing, though he used the context of academic experience (self-learning) as his answer.  Several others have agreed.  As a non-fiction writer, I would agree.  Life experience, to include self-education (on top of formal education, if you wish) is the real key to good writing.

That has made me reflect on my own life and experiences.  I’ve had many academic loves in my life, from astronomy to horticulture to mysticism and more.  As a neighbor once said of me, introducing me to another neighbor at a BBQ, I’ve “never met anything with words I wouldn’t read.”

Beyond that, though, I reflect on the other aspects of my life.  Like most people, I’ve loved and lost, had high points and low valleys, and been places and seen things.  Everyone’s journey through life is a little different.  I’ve had many jobs, but writing is the only consistent career I’ve ever enjoyed.

My jobs have been as varied as my academic interests.  I’ve worked as a grocery store clerk, as a telemarketer, a data entry person, a “mechanic” at a junk yard, as kitchen help in a large cafeteria, a carpenter, a salesman, a warehouse worker, forklift operator, an acetylene generator operator, a truck driver, and others.  I’ve been active and inactive in politics – I’ve even run for office – and I’ve done freelance Web development, been an entrepreneur, done seminar tours, and have become a friend, husband, and father.

I’ve spent time with people from many backgrounds, many places, and with many philosophies.  I’ve traveled the country, coast to coast, and been in places high and low.  I’ve talked to people, closely, from every conceivable ethnicity and from most of the world’s cultures.

In short, in less than 40 years of life, I’ve had many, many experiences with a wide variety of results.  No doubt you have too.

My suggestion to any writer, whether established or new, is to sit back and reflect and think about all of the things you’ve experienced in life – whether you’ve lived 20 years or 100.  No matter who you are, how old you are, or where you come from: you have unique and life-building experience.

Realizing that and utilizing it in your work is what makes a great writer, I think.

09/13/2010 (2:01 pm)

Eliminating Writer’s Block

Filed under: Writing Basics |

A lot of writers, especially those who write creatively, complain of writer’s block.  I’ve experienced it many times.  There are a lot of methods for countering the block, but not all of them work for everyone.

What works for me may be different than what works for you, but here are the methods I use most often to get me through a bout of writer’s block.  The one I choose will depend on several things, such as what kind of deadline I’m under, how many other projects I have, and even what time of year it is.

When Time is Not the Issue

Of course, rarely is time not really important, since many of us will get writer’s block and then just procrastinate until the very end of our deadline.  That’s a bad habit to get into, so here is what I do before time becomes an issue.

First, I walk away from the project I’m not able to write for.  Not quit, just walk away from it.  I take a day, maybe two, and ignore all information relating to the subject or job and instead work on other things.

Sometimes those other things aren’t even writing, actually.  I might mow the lawn, do some handyman jobs around the house (aka “honey do’s”), play with the dogs, etc.  Anything, so long as it is not the troublesome project.

After doing this and refreshing myself with other subjects, I can usually go back and no longer have a blockage.

When the Pressure Is On

Of course, most writer’s block (at least for me) tends to come because the project is a “hurry hurry, last minute, right now, no time to waste” endeavor.  I used to get a lot of these, but have since either weeded out the clients who were chronic with these types of last-minute projects or have doubled the price to them, thereby winning extra time to avoid the higher costs.

Of course, reasons that may not be your client’s fault or that may be because of your own schedule can make any project become a last-minute time crunch.  Whatever thecase, being under pressure often causes writer’s block – more so than at any other time for me.

For this, I have a method that takes about an hour, but it’s grueling.

I set an alarm (usually my cell phone or the computer) for fifteen minutes.  Then, ignoring the alarm, I open up a word processor and start typing.  I make no stops, no breaks, no “glances at email” or anything else.  What I’m writing doesn’t matter.  Usually it is just me ranting out a tirade about the looming deadline, the project, or the project that delayed me getting to this one, or whatever else.  To be honest, these rants usually boil down to something about the IRS, someone that recently peeved me, and similar and rarely has to do with the project at hand.

The subject you’re writing on for this fifteen minute marathon is not really important.  It’s the unabated flow of writing that matters.  After fifteen minutes, I can often stop, take a breather, and open a new page and begin the project at hand.

If, after fifteen minutes, the block is still there, then I do another fifteen.  It can sometimes take up to an hour to get through, but most of the time the first fifteen minutes does the job.

The Research Salve

My last method, which I’ll use when the block seems to be all about “how do I start this?” is what I call my “research salve.”  I cover the wound (writer’s block) with more research or with a re-examination of it.

Often the blockage in this case is not an inability to write on the subject, but instead a problem with what approach to take.  Some time spent going through the information to be written about usually solves this for me.  Especially if I take a respite or break of some kind and come back to it.

Another, similar method I often use for heavily-researched and science-based items is mind mapping or even the writing of a preliminary, summarized version of what I intend to write overall (without any “angle” implied).  In other words, I take the information and either map it out in a non-linear fashion (mind map) or I write a short (less than a page) “just the facts, ma’am” summary to work from.

Either of these works well to put all of the information in front of me in a one-page, one-glance format so that I can more easily develop a focus for the final piece.

Whatever Works For You

Of course, you’ll have to find whatever works for you in whatever situation you find yourself in.  Many writers use meditation, relaxation, stimulation, distraction, and many other “ions” to work through their writer’s block.

There are as many ways to do it as there are writers doing it.  Experiment a little and find your best methods.

08/19/2010 (11:55 am)

Fast, Easy Ways to Write Better Today (with or without rhyming)

Filed under: Writing Basics |

The title of this one should give away the fact that this article is not really aimed towards writing professionals.  Instead, I though something should be said to those who write as a side note to their normal career.  Maybe you work in IT and your boss expects you to occasionally write presentations, reports, or blog posts.  Maybe you’re a commodities trader and your business could use the marketing boost that some decent articles and a newsletter might provide.  Whatever your situation, you’ve found yourself being required to write things for other people to read and are a little unsure of yourself.

Well, have no fear.  Good writing requires only that you understand some fundamentals and build some simple, proven habits to bolster them.  These are the beginning skills a professional writer will foster and will take mediocre writing to the level of good writing quite quickly.  The ultimate goal here, really, is to get rid of some of the baggage we all have thanks to the way we’re taught to write in school and to avoid common mistakes.

I’ve covered many of the basics before, but will repeat them here and add a few new ones that might help non-professionals find an easier track towards good writing.

Make Proofreading a Habit

This one is universal and has been repeated often here at AaronTurpen.com.  After you’ve completed writing your material, set it aside for as long as possible (a full day is best, but an hour is OK if time lines are short) and then read through it.  This gives you a clearer perspective on what you’ve written and will help you do several things: see typos and misspellings, fix repetitious words and phrases, re-arrange material for better flow, and otherwise clean up your work.  Most shoddy writing can be fixed with a few minutes’ proofing.

Making this a habit will eventually lead to proofreading as you write, eliminating your most common mistakes before they happen.

Read It Out Loud

Once you’ve completed your writing, read it back to yourself out loud.  Does it stay together?  Are parts of it clunky or hard to understand?  If something is hard to read out loud, it’s definitely hard to read period.  This will force you to simplify sentences and keep on point.  After a while, you’ll get in the habit of writing out loud in your head.

Use Punctuation For Readability, Not “Grammar”

The worst thing they teach in schools is “proper grammar.”  This involves a lot of memorization and rote learning about the way punctuation is “correctly” used.  Most of it is detrimental to good writing.  Sure, it might look great to your High School English teacher, but for the man on the street?  It’s hoity and makes no sense.  Punctuation should make sense.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that every sentence shouldn’t have a period, a question mark, etc. at the end, but it also means that just because grammar says a semi-colon or comma is supposed to be there (or not be there) the sentence or paragraph won’t read better if it isn’t (or is).  Use commas, semi-colons, and hyphens as ways to create pauses, to break up ideas, or to create better readability and flow.  If, when reading your work out loud, you notice that a sentence is a little long or seems hard to grasp, it could probably do with something to break it up.  Either add a comma (or two) or cut it in half and make two sentences.

Remember that most reading takes place verbally (if in our heads) because language is, fundamentally, meant to be spoken.  Use that knowledge to make your writing easier to read.  Here are a few quick rules about punctuation marks:

  • Commas are the carpenter’s hammer of the writing trade.  While periods are the nails, commas are what pounds them in.  Use commas to create a pause, make a list, or otherwise divvy up a sentence into easily digestible bits.
  • Semi-colons are probably the least-used and most useful of the punctuation marks.  Often, two short sentences that appear choppy can be combined with a semi-colon to make them smooth.  Imagine the spots where you’d arch an eyebrow, give a smirk, or otherwise signal to someone you’re talking to that something is important; that’s where a semi-colon goes.
  • Parenthesis are probably the most over-used of the punctuation marks that could stand being underused.  More often than not, they’re used when they shouldn’t be.  Much of the time, they can be replaced with commas, a colon, or dashes.  For you programming types, nesting parenthesis in writing is never good.
  • Colons are used to make examples and that’s it.  Don’t use them for anything else.  It’s distracting.
  • Dashes are very useful for encapsulating an idea within a larger idea.  So if you have two sentences to write, but one looks better when said inside the other, use dashes rather than parenthesis to add it in.  It automatically tells the reader’s brain that a brand new idea is about to come and shouldn’t be confused with the original one they’ve been reading.
  • Question marks and exclamation points are how you add character to a paragraph or page.  Question marks should always end a question, of course, but questions can be used for more than just asking questions.  They can be existential, make a heavy point, or just make the reader ask for an answer.  Do you think questions are just questions?  Think again.  Exclamations, on the other hand, should be used very sparingly.  In fact, if you aren’t writing a personal email, a crappy blog post, or a text message to your friends, don’t use exclamations.  They are the purview of Internet marketers and should be avoided as much as possible.

Don’t Ramble; Follow the 5th Grader’s Basics

Last, but definitely not least, don’t ramble along in your writing.  If you have trouble with this, set word count goals or other limits to force your writing to be concise.  When proofing, trim the fat and keep it all on topic.

Of course, none of this means you should totally ignore all of the English classes you had to take in school.  Everything you learned up to about the 5th grade is probably relevant.  Capitalize the first word of the sentence, capitalize proper nouns, don’t use five exclamation points when you really need just one, and for hell’s sakes, don’t rush it!

Take your time, do it right, and eventually it will become easier and easier.  Writing is all about practice. Great writing is about being a genius – ask anyone who knows me!!!

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