Tips for writers

People of­ten ask me for writ­ing tips. They want to know how I can make my­self sit in front of a com­puter day after day, key­ing in words, de­let­ing them and start­ing all over again un­til I have a fin­ished art­icle or book.

The an­swer is that I like writ­ing. And for­tu­nately, I seem to be ge­net­ic­ally dis­posed to be be­ing dis­cip­lined and fo­cused. And it doesn’t hurt that I’ve learned to take re­jec­tion as a sign – not of fail­ure – but that I can im­prove my work to strengthen its appeal. 

The best piece of ad­vice I can give any­one is: sit down and write. Talking and think­ing about writ­ing are fine up to a point but, soon­er or later, you have to put words to pa­per or on a com­puter screen. 

But every writer – in­clud­ing me — struggles from time to time. It might be dif­fi­cult to ac­cess that ne­ces­sary bit of re­search, the words might not flow in a co­hes­ive and en­ga­ging man­ner and dis­trac­tions are of­ten only a glance or mouse click away.

Here are a few things I’ve found be­ne­fi­cial to the writ­ing process.

-Read a lot, write a lot and then read some more.
‑Know your theme and stick to it (mostly).
‑Use act­ive voice.
‑Pound out the first draft wtih little re­gard for pun­cuation and spelling. 
‑Write as if you’re telling a story to your best friend.
‑Create and keep a reg­u­lar writ­ing routine.
‑Have a quiet place to work where you will not be disturbed.
‑Learn to edit your writing. 
‑Listen to your in­tu­ition to de­term­ine what works and what doesn’t.
‑Enjoy the pro­cess – even the struggles.

Finding a quiet place to write is essential.

The above might mo­tiv­ate you to put your fin­gers to the key­board or you might have some oth­er ideas or tricks of the trade. If so, I’d love to hear about them.

Saying goodbye

Oh my God,” he said as soon as he sat down.

I looked over with alarm. I’d hired a com­puter tech to fix what I thought were some minor prob­lems. But this soun­ded ser­i­ous. Perhaps even terminal.

What’s the mat­ter?” I asked.

I’ve nev­er seen such a de­graded key­board,” he replied.

He was right. The y, u, I, h, k, n and m let­ters were totally worn off. They must be used in a lot of words. Not hav­ing them didn’t both­er me. I rarely look at the key­board when I type. But friends and fam­ily teased me about it whenev­er they came to vis­it and used my computer.

One day I re­membered I had a bottle of Sheer Heaven in the bath­room cab­in­et. Working care­fully, I used the white nail pol­ish to paint thick, but legible, let­ters on my key­board. Everyone thought that was pretty funny.

When I got a cheque for Christmas marked “new key­board,” I knew it was time to move on. But it was hard to let go of the old one. I es­tim­ated that dur­ing the six years I’d had it, I’d writ­ten two books and 400 arti­cles. That adds up to 435,000 words or so. No won­der some let­ters were worn off.

Like many people who sit in front of a com­puter all day, I have chron­ic back prob­lems. So, after some re­search, I bought an er­go­nom­ic keyboard.

It was all flow­ing curves and – if I only knew how to use them – had enough bells and whistles on it that I could prob­ably fly to the moon.

But you know what? For some reas­on the er­go­nom­ic key­board made my back pain worse. After three weeks of ad­just­ing my chair and tilt­ing the key­board this way and that try­ing to make it work, I re­turned it.

That’s right; I’m us­ing the key­board with the nail pol­ish let­ters again. It feels com­fort­able but seems an­noy­ingly noisy com­pared to its mod­ern cousin.

A new key­board is still in the works. In fact, I’ve got my eye on a sleek little black num­ber that prom­ises to be easy on the back and ul­tra quiet. All I have to do is say good­bye to the old key­board. Again.

For better or worse

Writing a book is a lot like get­ting mar­ried. You have to make a com­mit­ment and in­vest time and en­ergy in the re­la­tion­ship. And you have to be pre­pared to stick it out “for bet­ter or worse.”

It all starts with the hon­ey­moon phase. That’s when you get an idea for a sure-fire best­seller. Just like you can’t keep your mind off your new spouse, you can’t quit think­ing about your story. You start draft­ing chapters and con­duct­ing re­search fuelled by a rush of adrenaline.

Then months, or per­haps years, later you’ve com­pleted one — or more likely — many drafts of the story. It’s not so much fun now. You have to work hard to keep up your interest.

You’ve read some of the para­graphs so many times the words no longer seem to have any sparkle. And some­times you secretly won­der if it would be bet­ter to just quit and start all over.

But you made a vow and are de­term­ined to keep it. You slog away and then one day you look at your ma­nu­script and think, “Hey, this isn’t as bad as I thought it was. There are def­in­ite pos­sib­il­it­ies here.”

Somehow things seem easi­er now. By strug­gling through the rough times, you’ve made your story stronger. You no longer think about hit­ting the de­lete but­ton. You want to see this one to the end.

Clean Copy

The Fine Art of Proofreading

Placenta and placemat, the dif­fer­ence is ob­vi­ous. Or maybe not.

Everyone knows how easy it is to mis­spell words, es­pe­cially if you’re go­ing like gang­busters on the com­puter. No mat­ter how good a typ­ist you are, fast fin­gers tend to strike the wrong keys from time to time. And every­one knows how un­pro­fes­sion­al and sloppy it looks when you re­ceive a let­ter, story or email riddled with typos.

Proofreading can be time con­sum­ing and bor­ing. But it’s also ne­ces­sary. Especially if you’re wrap­ping up a re­port for work, sub­mit­ting an art­icle to a magazine or writ­ing the fi­nal draft of The Great Canadian Novel.

And the frus­trat­ing part of it is, once you write some­thing, your eyes and brain tend to see what you meant to write, not what’s ac­tu­ally on the page or mon­it­or screen. So you can read the text over and over and nev­er spot the typos.

Here’s an ex­ample I found at www​.per​fec​ted​it​ing​.com:

Accdrnig to a rs­cheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deo­sn’t mt­taer in waht oredr the lt­teers in a wrod are, the olny iprmo­et­nt tihng is taht the frist and lsat lt­teer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit por­belm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed er­vey lteter by is­tlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Proofreading tips

  • Proof more than once. Professional proofread­ers think noth­ing of go­ing over a doc­u­ment 10 times or more.
  • If you have mis­spelled a word in the past, chances are you will do so again.
  • Read what you see, not what you think is there.
  • Do your proofread­ing in a quiet place where you won’t be distracted.
  • Read the text out loud.
  • After you fin­ish writ­ing some­thing, set it aside and proof it later. (The next day is best.)
  • Have someone else proofread your work; they’ll spot things you miss.
  • Proof a print copy, as well as from the com­puter monitor.

And then there’s spell check, a won­der­ful in­ven­tion that catches mis­spelled words and gram­mat­ic­al er­rors. But it’s not fool­proof. Spell check doesn’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate between here and hear, to and two or bare and bear. As long as a word is spelled cor­rectly, it isn’t highlighted.

And some­times strange things hap­pen. An art­icle I wrote for a news­pa­per con­tained a word that didn’t be­long in it. I didn’t put it there, spell check did. I didn’t no­tice it and neither did the ed­it­or. Luckily, a proofread­er did.

When the ed­it­or called to check the word­ing and read, “The com­pany is present­ing a new line of col­our­ful pla­centas,” I laughed so hard I nearly fell out of my chair. The cor­rect word, of course, was placemats. Somehow dur­ing the spell check my hand must have spasmed and clicked pla­centa to re­place the mis­spelled word placemat.

So, if you want people to be en­gaged in your con­tent, not dis­trac­ted by ty­pos and spelling mis­takes, take time to proofread. And yes, that means emails too.