Writing Power’s Links to Love: March 31

Dustin M. Wax of LifeHack fame has launched a great new site for writers. He says, “I’ll be posting software and hardware reviews, tutorials, marketing tips, writing advice, and whatever else I can think of-all focused on how writers can make their tools work for them.” Check it out! Welcome to the Writer’s Technology Companion

Here are some other great posts by writers focused on genre fiction (Writer Unboxed) and freelance commercial writing (The Renegade Writer). Enjoy!

Writer Unboxed » Blog Archive » Writing for Effect

The Renegade Writer Blog 

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Awaken Your Inner Storyteller, Part 2

In my last post, I discussed narrative’s importance to all sorts of writing, and I offered tips on narrative sequencing and organization. Today, I want to focus on how writers make decisions about including details in narratives, and how writers can evaluate a piece’s rhetorical needs in order to create the best narrative for the job at hand.

Narratives tell stories: what happened, how it all began, who did what to whom…. Details can enrich and enliven narratives, contributing to their purpose or theme. However, if they’re not used judiciously, details can clog and distort narratives. For example, say you have a narrative in which a man checks his watch. Do you describe the watch, or not? The answer is that it depends.

In one narrative, the watch might be nothing more than a means to an end. For example:

He checked his watch as he left the building. Dammit, he thought. I’m already behind schedule. As he hurried to his car,…

Here, it didn’t matter what the watch looked like; the writer might not mention it again. Moreover, the character is in a hurry, and taking time out to describe the watch would slow the narrative’s pace.

But what about another example?

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Awaken Your Inner Storyteller, Part 1

Welcome to Writing Power, the site that aims to help people enrich their lives by improving their writing. If you like what you read, I hope you’ll become a regular reader by subscribing to Writing Power’s RSS feed. In addition, please consider sharing your favorite posts through sites like digg, StumbleUpon, or del.icio.us using the “Share This” link below. Thank you for your support!

Narration is one of writing’s building blocks, the basic strategies that writers employ to tackle a variety of writing situations, genres, and purposes. For our earliest human ancestors, as for us, storytelling functioned as an important social and cultural construct, a way of organizing experience. It’s no surprise, then, that a writer will draw on his or her storytelling skills, no matter what he or she is writing.

If you’re working on a novel or a short story, you probably pay attention to narration already. But what if you’re writing a blog post, or an academic argument, or a news profile? You may not think about narrative strategy, but chances are, you’re using narrative principles in these pieces, too.

For example, I might begin a blog post with an anecdote about something I experienced that got me started thinking about the post’s topic: a day at the library, for example. But the point of my post is not just to relate that story; in other words, my post’s overall genre is not autobiographical narrative. The point of my post is to share strategies for writing in a way that is compelling for readers. Although my library narrative merely served an introductory function, I still needed to pay attention to the way I told that story.

I often use narrative strategies here at Writing Power to present examples that will help to clarify my arguments. These are usually super-short vignettes in which I imagine writers trying to communicate or readers trying to understand. These examples, where for a moment you see a bleary-eyed writer massaging his or her temples in hopes of coaxing out a fresh idea, are mini-narratives.

As I hope the above examples show, narratives can pop up just about anywhere, whether you’re “writing a story” or not. We humans just gravitate toward stories. If you need further proof, just sit down and watch the advertisements during an hour of prime time TV: you’ll see a parade of 30- and 60-second narratives, each with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Okay, so writers use narratives in all sorts of ways. What techniques should writers pay attention to in order to construct strong narratives?

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Writing Power’s Links To Love: March 24

Enjoy this week’s great links!

Time to Write: Why You Should Be Unreasonable

A General Theory of Productivity | Personal Productivity and Development

http://unclutterer.com/2008/02/22/unclutter-your-writing-with-self-imposed-limitations/

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Ask The Writers: Overcoming Writer’s Block

Writer’s block.

Two innocuous looking words, responsible for a lot of misery.  What is writer’s block?  In some ways, writer’s block is like procrastination.  You may be reluctant to work on a writing project because of fear:  you are unsure whether the project will succeed, or you are apprehensive about tackling a mountain of intellectual complexity.

You may also be procrastinating because you don’t feel motivated to write.  I’ll be the first to admit that writing is hard work: it’s natural to wish, sometimes, that you could watch a Bruce Lee marathon instead.  If your writing goals are not dictated by hard deadlines, it may be even harder to work steadily at the task, no matter how important you think it is or how much you enjoy it.  It’s all too easy to defer the things you want to do in the course of the things you have to do (or think you have to do).

In some ways, though, writer’s block is different from other forms of procrastination; staring unproductively at the blank page is different from ignoring that linen closet you should organize.  Many times, a writer wants to write but can’t get the ideas to flow.  Because it’s inherently creative, our writing is imbued with ideas about who we are.  Following the writing process means confronting ourselves, and sometimes that can be a tricky proposition.

So today, I’d like to ask you — the writers — to share your techniques for dealing with and overcoming writer’s block.  What do you do to get those ideas flowing?

What strategies work for you when you have to get it done?  When you want to get it done?

You all have some amazing ideas: I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

Cheers!

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On Decoding Essay Exam Questions

Today I proctored my literature class’s midterm exam. I watched my students frown in concentration; one or two looked patently anxious and overwhelmed. I wanted to pull those students aside and say to them, “It’s okay. Don’t worry. There’s nothing to be anxious about – I have carefully placed clues in all the questions to help you answer them successfully.

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Don’t think of this as a test; instead, think of it as a communication. Once you understand what the questions are asking, you will be able to answer them.”

Of course, it’s easy for me to say that: I’m the professor. I know the subject inside and out. What seems clear to me may be a mystery to my students. And I’m not taking into account that factors outside the exam may be causing their anxiety: they may not have studied, they may not have kept up with the reading, they may have had a hellish week of exams, they may be exhausted or sick, or they may be dealing with personal challenges. My students have a lot at stake in their exams; it’s natural that some of them would respond with anxiety.

The more I thought about it, the more the exam seemed to be an analogy for the myriad difficulties of the communicative process. I, as the writer, wanted my students to understand the exam questions as I had intended them to be understood. I expected my students to have certain background knowledge (a solid grasp of the course readings, lectures, and discussions) in order to be able to understand the exam and respond appropriately to it.

My students, as the readers, come to the exam with a variety of perspectives, none of which correspond exactly to the ideal student-reader I have in my mind. This accounts for the diverse responses to and performance on the exam, which I had intended to be an opportunity for them to demonstrate their success in learning course concepts.

Writers work to make the gulf between themselves and their readers as narrow as possible. But there are also things a reader – that is, an essay exam taker – can do to succeed in interpreting the exam. If you can recognize common essay exam clues, you can answer the questions more effectively.

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Streamline Your Writing With Outcomes Measurement

As most of you know, I currently work full time as a college English professor.  Before that, however, I spent a year as a full time grant writer for an educational nonprofit organization.  The grant writing world is quite different from academia: it’s full of mysterious concepts like targets, milestones, and outcomes.

To be an effective grant writer, I had to learn a lot about outcomes measurement.  Although I no longer write grants full time, I still dabble in fundraising and development on a freelance basis.  Today, in fact, I was reviewing a grant draft for a college advancement office, and much of my feedback concerned the proposed project’s outcomes.  I started to think about outcomes measurement in general, and it struck me that all writers could benefit from adopting an outcomes-based perspective from time to time.

Outcomes measurement is a widely used, and often misunderstood, methodology in nonprofit development.  Its basic premise is simple: the most important criterion to use in determining a program’s effectiveness is whether (and how) people’s lives were changed as a result of that program.  Funders want to know how their money will help people.  Funders do not want to know what their money will allow an agency to do.

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My Favorite Sentence Revision Technique

My students typically get into a bad place about their writing style right about now – at midterm. Gripping their temples, they moan, “This is pointless. It’s stupid. You know what I meant.” Just a couple of weeks ago, they had (somewhat glibly) assured me that they were eager to learn how to write with a more powerful, lively, specific style. Now that they have had a taste of how difficult stylistic issues can be, and how deeply ingrained in their prose wordiness is, they’re frustrated. Quite understandably.

Revising to improve writing style can be a tortuous – and torturous – process. All too often, we fix one style error by creating another. Or we can’t think of a different way to phrase our ideas. Sometimes, we don’t even understand the wordy, jargon-filled prose our earlier selves drafted. It’s enough to make a writer want to give up.

But my students are not giving up. They are turning on the assignment instead, demanding to know what’s so great about active voice or what’s so wrong with “due to the fact that.” I find this feistiness encouraging, because it means that they are questioning assumptions about writing. They are thinking critically, even if their goal is nothing more noble than trying to worm out of the hard work of stylistic revision. They need a manageable sentence revision strategy to get them started.

At this point, I introduce the class to my favorite sentence revision technique: Richard Lanham’s Paramedic Method of Revision. It’s simple to understand, easy to do, and effective.

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Use Writing To Make Yourself Irreplaceable

As this blog’s regular followers will no doubt have noticed, I try to vary Writing Power’s content in a few ways. For example, I try to write posts covering all stages of the writing process, from invention to editing. I also try to place each post on a different point along a continuum that stretches between abstract, how-to-change-the-way-you-think-about-writing posts (like this one) and specific, how-to-use-adverbs posts (like this one).

Finally, I write posts that apply to an array of writing situations: writing in your personal life, writing in an academic context, and writing at work. But what if you don’t do a lot of writing at work?

Well, maybe you should.

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18 Questions For Revisions That Work

 Welcome to Writing Power, the site that aims to help people enrich their lives by improving their writing.  If you like what you read, I hope you’ll become a regular reader by subscribing to Writing Power’s RSS feed.  In addition, please consider sharing your favorite posts through sites like digg, StumbleUpon, or del.icio.us using the “Share This” link below.  Thank you for your support!

So…you’ve been working hard to improve your writing.  You have been establishing a writing process, incorporating invention and planning before you draft.  More importantly, you have committed yourself to the real work of writing – revision.  You are looking at your drafts through your reader’s eyes, adjusting overall organization, word choice, even page design to enhance communication.

Even though your writing passion is focused on personal projects, you find yourself applying your new skills at the office, too.  Your emails have become more focused and efficient, and the professional writing you do exhibits increased purposefulness.

In short, you’ve become known as “the writing maven” at work.  And as soon as your colleagues recognize your skill, they begin to ask your advice.  The problem is, what works for you writing-wise may not work for your colleagues.  Not all good writers are good reviewers, just as not all good writers are good writing teachers.  It’s a different angle.

So what is a newly-crowned writing maven to do?  The following checklist will help you evaluate your colleague’s work systematically and ensure that your feedback is helpful.

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