September 2012


With a simple browsing of the library or bookstore shelves, you can locate many wonderful books written on the subject of writing. Topics include how to hone your craft, how to write for certain genres, how to write for children, how to navigate through grammar rules, and so forth. I’m not knocking these books, because they all do (if well written and researched) have some merit and will offer a certain amount of help when it comes to putting pen to paper. But few discuss the best way to become a better writer.

You could also attend the many and diverse writers conferences that can be found throughout the country–and world, for that matter. Here, you will hear from bestselling authors, sought-after agents, career-making editors, and other giants of the literary world. From morning to night, you will scurry from workshops to keynote speakers and from critique groups to panel discussions. You will be exhausted from overbooked days, but you will gain much knowledge and insight into the joys and tribulations of writing. But it’s doubtful that you will ever hear the best way to become a better writer.

Finally, you could shell out hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for writing classes or even one-on-one mentoring, where you will spend much time working through writing exercises, learning how to overcome writers’ block, and discovering new ways to unleash your inner creative self. But, alas, you still will probably not learn the best way to become a better writer.

I can say all this because-with the exception of the mentoring–I have done every one of these things. And, to a degree, each one helped in some targeted manner. But I can honestly say that none has helped me become a better writer more than this one thing…are you ready?

The best way to become a better writer is to become a better reader. What? Are you serious? Yes, I am! Writers are readers–or at least they should be if they want to become better. But there are rules to this (of course!). For instance, you can’t be like my 15-year-old son whose reading, outside of required reading for school, consists of the sports section of the newspaper. And, you can’t just read FB and tweets all day and call that reading–or you will end up writing everything in acronyms.

I know that reading is an absolute integral part of a writer’s toolbox. It has worked for me, and every other writer who is serious about getting better. I can even see it working with my 6th grade daughter. Cayla is an amazing writer and has been since about the 3rd grade. She doesn’t always spell everything correctly, and she doesn’t always get the grammar rules right (who does, really?), but her creativity, story formulation, sentence structuring, and vocabulary usage are far beyond her years.

Her secret? Cayla reads every single day. It’s her absolute favorite thing to do. She constantly challenges herself with the level and content of what she reads. And, without even realizing it, she has learned to read like a writer. When I read her stories (she always writes fiction when she has the choice–unlike her nonfiction mom) I’ll ask her where she got certain ideas or why she decided to use the point of view she did. Her answer is always, “Oh, they did that in the last book I read and I thought it was really cool, so I wanted to try it.”

She has discovered that the key to reading is to learn to read like a writer. Next week, I’ll talk about exactly what I mean by that and how to do it.

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As a writer, what are you afraid of? Many new writers have fears because they don’t know yet if they can succeed. But even experienced writers have fears. Most writing fears can be grouped into three categories: fear of failure, fear of rejection (and these two are different), and fear of success.  I’d like to talk a little about the difference between the fear of failure and the fear of rejection as well as how to determine which of those three you may be dealing with.

A fear of failure is when you don’t think you’ll make it because you believe your personal efforts, skills, achievements, and so forth aren’t good enough to help you reach your goals. The fear of failure is very inward based and points directly to your personal efforts as a writer.

When you think about reaching a goal or making it as a writer, do you have doubts that say you can’t because of an intrinsic ability or characteristic? Do you look at your shortcomings and think they’re going to hold you back? Granted, we all have insecurities when it comes to our writing. But if they great enough to keep you from thinking you’ll ever succeed, you’re likely dealing with a fear of failure.

A fear of rejection is more outward based. This fear believes that even if you do your part others in the writing world will reject you and cause you to fall short of your goals. This may take the form of a publisher not being interested in your book or magazine article, or other writers not being accepting of you for whatever reason, or the writing industry not ready for your writing style or approach.

Many writers are actually way ahead of their time, and industry influencers aren’t willing to take a chance on them, so they get rejected. It’s only those writers who can rise above this fear of rejection and remain persistent who will eventually find their way.

To combat the fear of rejection, it’s imperative to learn not to personalize the rejections. Often books and articles get rejected, even if they’re well written, due to market trends, budget constraints (for books), topics that miss the mark, etc. You must approach each project realizing that rejection is a very real possibility and have a plan of action in the event you are rejected. Maybe you can re-target that article or send it to a different magazine. The more market research you can do before submitting any work, the greater you’ll decrease your chances of rejection.

Determine beforehand that you will not take the rejections personally. Use them as a learning tool to see how you can improve next time. I had a writer friend who used to say she’d visualize each rejection letter as a stepping stone that was paving her way to being published. I thought that was a great image to keep in mind! So, if you’re adequately confident in your own ability to succeed, yet believe there are “forces” “out there” that are going to stand in your way, you’re probably up against a fear of rejection.

“[Fear of success] is definitely a sign that we’re running out of fears. A person suffering from fear of success is scraping the bottom of the fear barrel.” — Jerry Seinfeld

I laugh every time I read that quote. But for many people, this is a very real fear. In my earlier post on the fear of success, I go into detail on ways to overcome it based on getting at the root of what you’re really afraid of. For now, I’d like to simply identify it so you know if it’s affecting you.

When you think of succeeding, are you happy about it? Do you have a sense of accomplishment, of satisfaction, of joy when you see yourself succeeding? Or, do you have a sense of dread, of anxiety, or uneasiness–even if you can’t put your finger on why? Most people with a fear of success can’t really identify it as the culprit, maybe because they think it’s absurd. But being successful launches you into the unknown–and fear of the unknown is a very strong fear.

There are various roots to the fear of success, but if you have any negative reaction or emotion to the thought of succeeding, then you’ll have to look further and find out what about success is making you wary. Because, regardless of what fear it is or where it comes from, it will absolutely paralyze you as a writer and create roadblocks you may not even be cognizant of. Your fears will ultimately become self-fulfilling prophecies that dictate how far you will go as a writer. It’s worth checking into!

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve posted about writers’ fears,but if you’d like to learn more about conquering the fear of failure as well as the fear of success, please take a moment to read those articles.

How is it that such a tiny mark in our English language can cause so much confusion? Today I’d like to take a closer look at the proper use of commas as well as an improper use in hopes to eliminate some of that confusion. Here are just a few do’s and dont’s of commas usage:

1. Do use a comma to introduce a quote: He said, “Let’s go to dinner.”

Do not use a comma to introduce a maxim or proverb: The phrase “In God we trust” can be found on our money.

2. If a comma is needed in a sentence with a parenthetical phrase, it always goes after the closing parenthesis:

Be sure to bring food, a sleeping bag, a coat (if it’s cold outside), and a flashlight to the campsite.

3. Always use a comma before and after a state or country name if a city name immediately precedes it: I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, but have lived in many other places.

4. Do use a comma after an introductory phrase: Before leaving on the plane, the passengers were thoroughly searched. Exceptions to this include very short introductory phrases as well as those cases where there would be no misreading of the sentence if there wasn’t one.

Do not use a comma for introductory phrases that are immediately followed by a verb: Before the doorway stood a looming figure.

5. Do use a comma with coordinate adjectives, which are adjectives that can be reversed in order and can be joined by the word and and still make sense: It was a very dry, cold winter.

Do not use a comma with adjectives that cannot be reversed in order or that no longer make sense when joined with and: She word a long yellow dress.

6. Do use a comma to set off a non-restrictive word or phrase (one that can be omitted without causing confusion about the noun it refers to): My husband, Derrick, is a personal trainer.  Note: One way to test this is to ask, Is the word or phrase one of a kind? So, in this sentence, since you can assume I only have one husband, commas would be used to set off Derrick. 

Do not use a comma where the word or phrase is restrictive: His book Tall Tales was a bestseller.

In this sentence, the reader would have to assume that the author has written more than one book since there are no commas to set off the title of the book, which in this case is a restrictive phrase. However, if he had written only one book, the sentence would read: His book, Tall Tales, was a bestseller.

7. Do use a comma to set off any non-restrictive relative clause, which is followed by the words which or some form of who:  I ate breakfast, which consisted of eggs, toast, and sausage. Again, a non-restrictive clause is one that can be eliminated without changing the meaning of the rest of the sentence.

Do not use a comma to set off restrictive clauses, which are preceded by the word that and which would change the meaning of the sentence if eliminated:

The breakfast that I ate consisted of eggs, toast, and sausage.

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Those are but a few of the many, many rules governing comma usage. I would offer a few more, but too much talk of commas may send one into a coma!

Happy punctuating!

Probably one of the hardest parts about writing is deciding what exactly to write about. When it comes to writing magazine articles this can be especially tough because there are such a wide variety of angles, or approaches from which to write.

As you’re searching for a story, you’ll need to keep the breadth of your focus in mind. You can think of this like the lens on a camera, zooming in and out to include more or less of the overall picture. Remember that when determining an angle, or focus, for your article, you must keep it general enough that you have adequate information to write about–zoom out to give your reader a wide enough view of your topic. But, at the same time zoom in enough to provide a clear focus on one specific area of your theme. If your focus is too broad, you will lead your reader down too many paths at once.

Always keeping this balance of focus in mind, you can set out to find your story. My suggestion when writing for magazines is to determine what magazines you want to approach before writing your article. Some people write the article first then try to find a magazine to sell it to. But because all magazines have different guidelines, word counts, themes, and so forth, to me that’s a lot like designing a wedding dress then trying to find that one bride who not only likes it, but who fits into it perfectly–it’s a hard sell!

So, start with what the magazine wants–what themes or topics are they looking for? How should the article be structured: a how-to format, an anecdote to open, an interview style? What’s the overall tone of the magazine: lighthearted, scholarly, humorous? Who is the magazine’s target market?

Answering these questions will also help you narrow your search for an appropriate story. After reading through several issues of the magazine you want to submit an article to, you should have a very good feel for what your story should look like. Now your job is to keep your eyes open! Stories can be found anywhere–if you’re looking.

Here are some places that may generate story ideas:

1. Current news stories or topics–Dig into the stories you see in your local paper or on the internet. Look beyond the story itself to find another story, and then consider all the different angles from which you could approach that new story. One example is a story about a local robbery in your area. From that one story you could research robbery trends–how much have robberies increased due to a bad economy? Which places are most likely to get robbed? How has the typical robber profile changed in a poor economy vs. a good economy (and it has!)? Questions like this help you see a story inside another story that other writers may have not considered. This approach can be taken with just about any news story.

2. Local events–What’s going on in your town or state right now? State fairs? Sporting events? See what kind of stories you can pull from things happening around you. Go to the event, if possible, interview those involved in putting the event together, research the economic effect such an event has on an area, an so forth. You might be surprised at what you can learn about a local 4-H competition, or the inspirational story that may come from it!

As I write this, our town just finished its third day of a Labor Day weekend Balloon Classic, with hot air balloon launches every morning at the crack of dawn and balloon glows every night after sunset. If I wanted to write about hot air balloons, I could get several angles from this one event: the origins and history of ballooning, what goes into organizing such an event (and I would interview the organizers), what it’s like to pilot a balloon (I’d interview some pilots), how to get into ballooning and get licensed, hot air balloon training facilities around the country, etc.

3. People around you--If you’re writing for a magazine that thrives on personal interest pieces, start paying attention to the stories of people you meet or perhaps hear about in your area who are doing something interesting or have an inspiring tale to share. You’ll have to put on your journalism hat, but start asking questions to learn about the stories that people have. Then take those stories and put an interesting twist on them by using a creative angle or point of view to tell them. If you find 3 or more people who have a similar story (cancer survivors, for example), use a round-up style article to share–as well as compare and contrast–each of their stories under one common theme.

A current example from my area is the Waldo Canyon Fire that ravaged our neighborhoods a couple of months ago. Everyone in my surrounding area has a story to share about the fire–the pressures of evacuating, the emotion of not knowing if their house made it, the devastation of losing a home or relief of not losing a home, and the tough decision of whether to rebuild in the same area. I could find several people to do a round-up article on and share their stories. To make it more interesting, I could get the stories from children as well as adults, who would have an entirely different perspective, and I could interview those who took care of evacuees, as well as the evacuees themselves.

There are stories everywhere. Usually the best ones are those that underlie the obvious. What makes a story great is the writer’s ability to get past the obvious and superficial story and into the deeper one, come up with a unique angle, and present it from an interesting perspective.

I’d like to hear from some of you on how you gave an ordinary story an extra-ordinary twist, or share any questions you may have about how to do this.