Here’s One Major Reason People Stop Reading Your Work and How You Can Fix It

We need to talk about you. Specifically, we need to address your use of singular, first-person pronouns.

Yes, that phrase, “singular, first-person pronouns,” probably makes you sleepy and surfaces nightmare flashbacks to grammar class. But using too many of these words in the wrong place can encourage readers to disengage from your work.

Good writing, the best kind of writing, comes from our hearts. It shares personal anecdotes and relays our experiences as stories, tales that may be humorous, gut-wrenching, relatable, or outlandish. By putting ourselves into our writing, we connect with readers.

Yet, we’re also walking the balance beam of reader engagement. Talk too much about ourselves, and readers will abandon the piece.

Your writing doesn’t do its job if no one reads it. Plus, poor engagement can hurt your online content’s search engine rankings.

This story highlights how singular, first-person pronouns push readers away from our work and what we can do about it.

But first, let’s identify what we’re referring to with singular, first-person pronouns.

Person smiling, pointing at the camera
Photo by Stephan Seeber from Pexels

Words that tell readers, ‘Move along.’

Singular, first-person pronouns are the words as I, me, my, mine, and myself.

Most of us use these words quite a bit while speaking and in our writing. It’s hard to tell a story, especially when sharing something from our life, without using these words.

Yet using too many of these words can cause your reader to move along.

Think about the most annoying social media posts you see. There’s a good chance many of them focus solely on the person publishing the post and that the individual uses a lot of me, my, myself, and I.

You don’t want to read someone talking only about themselves, and neither do your readers.

The worst place for singular, first-person pronouns

While it’s a good idea to limit the number of singular, first-person pronouns in your writing, there’s one spot in your work where you should avoid using these words as much as possible: At the beginning of your sentences.

That’s because many people are skim readers, bouncing from one sentence to the next, especially while reading online content.

And singular, first-person pronouns act as stop words for many readers.

Meaning, readers skimming through articles hit the brakes when they come to a sentence starting with “I” or “my.” First, they wonder where they fit into the sentence. Then they often abandon whatever they’re reading.

To keep readers engaged, limit the number of sentences you start with singular, first-person pronouns. Doing so may be difficult at first, but it’s not impossible.

Here’s how you can do it.

How to reduce sentences that start with singular, first-person pronouns

When first trying to limit how often you begin sentences with a singular, first-person pronoun, don’t worry about it while writing. Instead, make this something you focus on while editing your work.

Get your first draft done. Then, read through your writing, identifying any sentence beginning with a singular, first-person pronoun.

Next, rewrite these sentences, one at a time, being mindful about what you want to communicate in that sentence while beginning it with a different word or phrase.

For example, take this sentence from a recent story I published: “The weekend I arrived in Lake Placid happened to be during the 2021 Lake Placid Ironman.”

Let’s say I wrote, in my first draft, the sentence as, “I arrived in Lake Placid the same weekend as the 2021 Lake Placid Ironman.”

While editing, I see the sentence starts with “I.” With rearranging, I can begin the sentence with something other than a singular, first-person pronoun while letting the sentence still communicate what it needs to.

It’s a small change, easy to make, but one with huge potential.

Instead of beginning a sentence with a stop word, in this case, “I,” the sentence invites the reader to continue. Doing so reduces the chance the reader will click away and will instead finish reading the piece.

One small tweak for writers, one giant leap for readers

Some of the best writing contains our experiences and lessons learned, but that doesn’t mean we have to start sentences with singular, first-person pronouns, such as “I” and “my.”

These pronouns operate as stop words, encouraging readers to stop reading our writing.

We fail as writers when people don’t finish reading what we write. And having readers abandon our online content can negatively impact our organic search traffic.

But by limiting the sentences we start with singular, first-person pronouns, we can increase the likelihood that readers will stick with our writing until the end.

Write your first draft without considering your singular, first-person pronoun use. Then, when editing your draft, rework any sentences starting with words such as “I” and “my.”

The more you make these edits, the sooner you’ll include fewer sentences starting with singular, first-person pronouns in your first drafts. It’s a slight shift, but one that can have a massive impact on how readers engage with your writing. 

Include fewer sentences beginning with “me” and “I,” and you’ll have more people reading your work from beginning to end.

Strategies for Writers to Maintain a Positive Attitude When Their Work Isn’t Getting Published or Read

As writers, we put so much effort into our work. We pour our heart and soul into the words that we write, and sometimes we’re left wondering if it’s worth it.

Our words don’t get published. When they do, it can feel like no one bothers reading them.

It’s easy to feel discouraged and lose self-confidence. But there are some tactics we can try to maintain positivity so we can keep doing the work we love.

Below are four approaches for keeping a positive attitude and staying confident even when you feel like you have little writing success.

Person slumped over their laptop
Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels

Remember, you’re in the company of heroes.

One way to stay positive is to remind yourself that you’re not alone.

Did you know publishers rejected Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, 30 times?

For six years, author Celeste Ng documented her rejections in what she called her “Spreadsheet of Shame” before selling her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. That book became a New York Times bestseller.

Maybe you feel like no one’s reading what you publish. Look around, and you’ll quickly find other writers complaining online about low reads and views of their stories.

It’s easy to feel discouraged when hearing about bestsellers and people making thousands off of writing online. But for all those tales, there are many of us experiencing the same disappointments as you.

Being a writer means being in a company of heroes who do the work day after day and don’t always get the recognition we deserve. Remembering that can help you feel better about any struggles you’re facing.

Fall in love again

Another way to keep your confidence is to write for yourself. Spend time writing what you enjoy instead of what you think will sell or others will read.

The earliest stories I remember writing were entertainment for me. It wasn’t until much later in life that I developed the idea of getting published and earning money from writing.

Adult goals can pollute the joy of writing.

If you’re feeling down or lacking confidence, try writing something that’s fun for you to create. Or, think of something you’d like to read and write it.

There’s an oft-cited Toni Morrison quote that goes, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Keeping that guidance front-of-mind can help us get over the doldrums we sometimes experience in our writing. Fall in love again with writing by writing what you want to create and read.

Refocus on your ‘why.’

Similarly, one way to keep a positive attitude is to write about why you write.

Sometimes, when I’m in the dumps, I take out my journal and start free-flow writing about why I write. Sure, it often begins as a series of complaints, sentences that start with something like, “Why do I even bother…”

But before long, the complaining turns into reminding myself why I write in the first place. It’s not so I can score a book deal and become famous. So why do I get so upset when those things don’t happen?

When we lack positivity about our work, we may need to refocus on why we write. And an effective way to remind ourselves about our “why” is to write it out.

Let the negativity flow. Get it all out there in your journal or on the blank screen. 

Soon, you’ll start remembering why you write. And there’s a solid chance that why is different from why you lack confidence.

Screw the gatekeepers

OK, but what if you try all of the above and still can’t escape the negativity of rejection? Then follow this advice: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em.”

Today, thousands of writers around the world self-publish to millions of readers. Some authors release books on sites like Wattpad and Scribd. In addition, they are self-publishing books on online retail sites such as Amazon and Kobo.

There’s an almost limitless number of options for self-publishing. Get creative.

Elle Griffin is serializing her debut novel on Substack, and John McCrae earns about $6,000 per month publishing on Patreon under the pen name Wildbow.

You can even use Twitter to publish your story. That’s how the story behind the film “Zola” got its start.

It’s never been easier to self-publish. Attracting an audience, though, isn’t easy. You’ll likely have to put in a lot of effort promoting and marketing your work.

Still, if you’re sick and tired of rejection, say, “Screw the gatekeeper.” Instead, take your own route to publish.

Keep writing because we’re reading.

Rejection hurts. Putting time into a story no one reads is maddening.

But we writers can’t dwell on the negativity if we’re going to keep writing. And we need to keep at it because it’s what we love to do and because one thing about our writing that’s for certain is that it won’t exist if we don’t create it.

So, here are ways I maintain positivity and self-confidence, which I think can work for you, too:

  • Remember you’re not alone
  • Fall in love with writing again
  • Refocus on why you write
  • If all else fails, self-publish

Practice these tactics when you’re frustrated and feeling low. They’ll help keep you writing, which is what we, and you, need you to do.

This article originally appeared on Medium.

6 Tweaks to Your Daily Routine That Will Make You a More Productive Writer

If you’re a writer, you know the feeling that you’re not doing enough.

You probably spend hours writing every week. Yet, your list of writing ideas is perpetually long, and you can’t shake the nagging that you’re still not writing as much as you should.

All writers feel this way. But below, I share six relatively easy tweaks I made to my daily routine that helped me become a more productive writer.

If you make the same adjustments, I’m confident you’ll be churning out more copy than ever before.

Man typing on a laptop while lying on a sofa.
Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

Wake up earlier (or stay up later)

The world is quietest when most people are sleeping. But if you’re one of the people who’s awake while others aren’t, that means fewer distractions.

No one’s posting to social media, and you’re not getting new emails. The kids aren’t asking you for anything, your boss is snoozing, and your push notifications are quiet.

Take advantage of those times. Give yourself at least an hour, either in the morning or at night, to write.

If you’re a morning person, wake up an hour earlier. If you’re more productive at night, stay up an hour later.

Don’t Netflix and chill.

Early in my self-employment days, I gave myself a treat. Every day, while eating lunch, I streamed a show.

But then I noticed two things:

  1. I was usually done eating well before the show ended. So what would have been a 20-minute lunch took up to an hour.
  2. I struggled to get back to work after finishing the show.

So, I gave up my midday treat. Sure, I still eat. Instead of streaming something, though, I often read about writing.

This brings me to the third easy tweak you can make to be a more productive writer.

Read about writing

Writing is not something you’ll ever perfect. Even the best writers, the bestselling novelists, and the highest-paid freelancers can improve.

That’s why reading about writing is essential to becoming a better, more productive writer. Tons of writers share tips, tricks, advice, and lessons learned on Medium, newsletters, and blog posts.

Find writers who share helpful, inspirational and insightful content. Then make consuming their content part of your daily routine.

One warning, though, is not to spend too much time reading about writing. It’s easy to convince ourselves that reading about writing is the same as writing. It’s not.

You still need to write if you want to be a productive writer.

Set a timer

Time yourself if you’re worried about spending too much time doing anything other than writing.

For example, I read while eating my lunch. When I’ve finished eating, I stop reading as soon as I reach the end of the piece I’m currently reading. Then I get back to work writing, researching, or editing.

While I don’t use a timer, you may need to, at least at first. Give yourself 20 or 30 minutes to read, check your email or social media.

Set the timer on your phone accordingly. Then, when the buzzer rings, stop what you’re doing and get back to writing.

Record every idea

Have you ever thought of something you want to write about and then later struggled to remember what it was?

How many times have you thought of a way to start a story or a sentence you want to use, only to forget it when you were ready to write?

Ideas often come to me while I’m reading in bed, just before falling asleep. Used to, I’d try to commit the thought to memory rather than recording the idea somewhere.

Then I got tired of forgetting, come morning, whatever it was that I thought was such a great idea. So, now I enter every writing-related thought that occurs to me.

If I’m in bed or out and about, I use my phone’s Notes application to record the idea. Or, I scribble the idea into my notebook if it’s handy.

And I mean, I record every single thought. You never know what you might forget, and sometimes your simplest or silliest ideas turn out to be fantastic.

Write freeform, baby.

Sometimes writer’s block is the biggest hindrance to our writing productivity.

From turning off Netflix to recording our ideas, we can do everything right, and yet we find ourselves staring at an unwelcoming blank screen. The words just don’t come.

A trick that almost always works for me is to start writing nonsense in my journal. Usually, I’ll begin by writing about what I did the day before or what I plan to do tomorrow.

Before long, I’m writing about something that’s upsetting me or worrying me. Then, I’ll sometimes fill two or three pages in my notebook about a topic I didn’t even know was an issue for me.

Once I commit to paper whatever’s on my mind, I turn back to my computer and, like magic, can write. Somehow, permitting myself to write about anything led clears my writing practice for takeoff.

Next time you’re stuck, try journaling about whatever pops into your mind.

Tweak your way to producing more writing

Being a productive writer means something different to each of us. For example, it may be working on your novel, while to me, it could mean publishing more blog posts.

However you define writing productivity, there are six relatively easy tweaks you can make to your daily routine to be a more productive writer:

  • Add at least an hour to the beginning or end of your day and use that time to write.
  • Limit the time you spend streaming shows and movies.
  • Read books, blog posts, and newsletters about writing.
  • Use a timer to protect your writing time.
  • Record every single writing-related idea that pops into your head.
  • When stuck, try journaling about whatever comes to mind.

Making these adjustments may not guarantee you’ll become a bestselling novelist. But if you incorporate them into your daily routine, you will produce more writing than you ever have before.

This article originally appeared on Medium.

These 7 Kwame Anthony Appiah Quotes Will Pollinate Your Writing and Help You Blossom as a Writer

Kwame Anthony Appiah is intelligent and productive. You could spend a lifetime reading through the stuff he’s published, a hefty list that includes four novels.

Much of Appiah’s writing focuses on philosophical questions. His books include The Ethics of Identity and The Politics of Culture, the Politics of Identity.

Recently, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Remnick interviewed Appiah for The Paris Review. Remnick asked the Ghanian-born Appiah for insights into how he approaches writing and how he’s been so prolific over the years.

Appiah’s answers throw some light onto the art of writing. Below are some of the most helpful thoughts from Appiah for writers.

Where can we find writing ideas? How should we approach writing about a topic? 

Kwame Anthony Appiah answers these questions and more below.

Photo by Thierry Fillieul from Pexels

Kwame Anthony Appiah on writing

“Many of the things I’ve written were in response to someone saying something and my thinking, I don’t understand that.”

“If a question interests me, and I have to learn some biology to answer it, I will learn some biology. If I have to read some more novels to answer it, I will read some more novels…You should follow questions where they take you.”

“The genealogy of concepts is one way to get a grip on them.”

“Immerse yourself in the relevant bodies of knowledge. Then try to explain on paper what you think people are saying, getting it as clear as you can for yourself. Then try to write what you think. You don’t know what you think until you try to say what you think. Look at it. See if it makes sense on the page.”

“Most of what you write just comes out of you when you put your fingers on the keyboard. It’s not a process over which you have a great deal of conscious control. The initial stimulus for an essay or a chapter is usually an episode—­real or fictional—or an argument or a claim I’ve been struck by. After so much writing, I now know what my take is on many questions, and so I’ve spent more time reading history and fiction looking for stories that make the abstract point come alive. Sometimes, though, the story is already there waiting for me in my own history.”

“I am tempted to explore times and places that I once knew well and that now seem a little strange to me.”

“Literature is produced by writers, yes, but also by communities that shape them.”

This article originally appeared on Medium.

Writers, If You Have a Newsletter, Check Out These Four Fantastic Takeaways for You From an Elle Griffin Interview

The writer of The Novelliest shares tips and tricks for writers with newsletters

Elle Griffin recently shared with Substack some of the secrets behind her popular newsletter, The Novelleist. In the interview, Griffin dished out some potent tips and advice for writers who have newsletters.

Griffin started The Novelleist in Feb. She’s trying to grow her newsletter audience before Sep., when she’ll release a serialized version of her debut novel, Obscurity. The Novelleist is free, but Griffin will charge subscribers for access to Obscurity.

Griffin’s decision to publish her novel as a serial newsletter will be a fascinating experience to watch. If enough people decide to pay $5 a month to read Obscurity, the author may help pioneer a new form of self-publishing.

In her interview with Substack, Griffin talked about growing her newsletter email list, deciding to serialize Obscurity, and more.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

How Elle Griffin handles the demands of newsletter publishing

“The only way I was able to come up with a weekly newsletter — because that’s kind of exhausting for me to write a weekly newsletter every week in addition to writing fiction chapters — so I do a newsletter every other week. And on the other weeks, I interview other authors who successfully serialized their fiction novels. So that I can learn from them.”

How Elle Griffin grows her email list

“I stalked everyone I could find on Twitter who used the combination of the word ‘fiction’ and the word ‘Substack’ in a tweet. I messaged them and invited them to a Discord server so we could learn from each other. There are hundreds of fiction writers in the community now, all talking about what has worked and not worked for each of us.”

“What was most helpful for growth was writing two articles that took me a really long time to produce. One took me all of 2020 to research. The other one took me another six months to research…(One) article had something like 60,000 views in one day, and a lot of subscribers came from that one piece of writing that really resonated.”

How She’s Charging Readers for Access to Obscurity

“I’m following the funding model you see with an online course. In these courses, you have to take the first class before the second class. There is a clear order, and people running courses often open enrollment just once a year…That’s how I’m going to approach it with my novel. September is my ‘enrollment period.’ My plan is to publish the first four chapters in September to my entire newsletter list for free. At the bottom of each of those posts, I’ll tell readers that in order to keep reading in October, they’ll need to subscribe and pay an annual fee.”

“I plan to do this same process every year. This first book will be done in June. I’ll have July and August off, and in September, I’ll start my second book.”

“I think this annual approach is easier on writers who aren’t used to asking for money because you just need to do so once a year, and then you can focus on writing.”

Takeaways from Elle Griffin

Elle Griffin delivers some creative, handy tips and tricks for writers with newsletters in a few words. Here are four critical takeaways from her interview with Substack:

  • Be realistic – Griffin identified content she could regularly produce. It’s crucial not to take on more than we can handle, or else we won’t maintain the consistency required to grow a newsletter audience.
  • Get creative – To attract readers to The Novelleist, Griffin leveraged other technologies, such as Twitter, in innovative ways. Being flexible and open to doing different things can produce impressive results.
  • Focus on your readers – Griffin knows new subscribers will want to start reading Obscurity with its first chapter. So, she established a process for helping new subscribers begin with her book’s first chapter, no matter when they subscribe. Likewise, when publishing a newsletter, always consider your audience to ensure you’re delivering the best possible experience.
  • Plan, plan, plan – Griffin already has a plan for how she’ll launch her serialized novel in Sep. She knows how to introduce new readers to the book, no matter when they subscribe. Griffin even knows when she’ll release her second serialized novel next year. Planning helps us consistently produce a high-quality newsletter that delights readers.

You can watch part of Elle Griffin’s interview, including examples of serialized fiction newsletters, at Substack.

This article originally appeared on Medium.

When the Words Don’t Come, Here’s How You Can Make the Most Out of Writing Winter.

It’s cicada season here in Washington, D.C., a big one. And lily and hydrangea season, and oh-Jesus-it’s-so-hot-and-humid season, too.

As someone in history wrote in Ecclesiastes, “To everything, there is a season.” Even writing.

There’s a lot of oft-repeated writing advice we writers are supposed to follow. Write every day. Set a schedule and follow a routine. Aim for at least 500 words a day. No, write at least 1,000 words a day.

And that’s all excellent advice, some of the time. But what about when the words just don’t come, when you can’t string together two coherent sentences?

What do you do when writing winter arrives?

A rock covered in snow jutting out of a frozen lake
Photo by Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash

Getting buried By writing winter

There are times when we writers have no problem churning out engaging stories, impactful poems, and informative articles. Ideas are flowing, and so are the words.

These periods I call writing summer. The grass is green, and flowers are blooming, and, even if writing isn’t easy for us, what we write is at least good.

But other times, we struggle. We stare at blank pages and blank screens and wonder what happened to the person who enjoyed writing summer. The thought of trying to write forces us under the covers, and we’re convinced we will never again produce anything worth reading.

That season is writing winter. It’s brutal. Not only are we not writing, but we also start to doubt ourselves and our ability. Could we really ever write in the first place? Will we ever write again?

Having gone through more than a few writing winters myself, I’ve learned to recognize the season for what it is, an opportunity to rest, restore, and rejuvenate. So while I don’t look forward to writing winter when it arrives, I now take a few steps to make the most of it.

Below are three things you can do to benefit from writing winter. But, first is something I implore you not to do.

Don’t kill your younglings.

In past writing winters, I routinely deleted my writing drafts. Like Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode III, I killed all my Younglings. Thousands of words, countless ideas, and kernels that could have popped into something vanished because I was frustrated and furious.

If you take one thing away from this piece, let it be this: When going through writing winter, do not do away with anything you’ve written. Leave your drafts be. Don’t delete your stories and articles.

An old writing adage is to “kill your darlings.” It means that while editing, writers need to be willing to scrap parts of a story that isn’t working, no matter how precious that sentence, scene, or quote is to you.

What I’m suggesting you do is not edit during writing winter, especially if you, like me, tend to slash and burn your works in progress. Of course, good writing is as much good editing, but what’s the rush?

Your drafts will be there when you emerge from winter and are in a better mental place to review your writing. So, while in winter, give editing a rest, unless you trust yourself to not over-correct and kill your Younglings.

Now that your drafts are safe from their creator let’s talk about three things you can do to get the most out of writing winter.

Give yourself a break.

A writer has no worse critic than themselves. But, unfortunately, we can turn the weapons that make us good writers, such as our knack for introspection, against us, leading us to attack our talent and work.

This self-inflicted assault may be most vicious during writing winter, but that’s when we most need to be kind to ourselves. We’re in a fragile state. Beating up on ourselves makes matters worse.

Instead, we need to permit ourselves to experience writing winter. We need to rest, and we need to give ourselves a break for doing so.

And while resting could mean a literal rest, such as sleeping more, skipping the gym, or taking a mental health day from work, I’m really talking about pausing your writing.

GASP — I know, sacrilege to spend a day not writing. May the writing gods smite me where I sit, but I’ve found that not writing during writing winter is the best way to reawaken and do my best work.

Give yourself a break when writing winter arrives. Permit yourself not to write. Instead, rest and pursue some other activities that will refresh you.

Pamper yourself and practice self-care

Along with giving yourself a break, do something for yourself. Think of this as a Netflix-and-chill tactic.

If you want to spend the day in your pajamas watching Netflix, then you should spend the day in your pajamas watching Netflix. Book a spa day. Go for a long run. Eat ice cream.

Identify something satisfying you don’t often do or haven’t been able to enjoy in a while and do that thing. It’s OK, and it’s helpful.

During a writing winter, there have been times when watching a movie or TV show triggered something inside me that propelled me out of the doldrums. The next thing I knew, I was at my laptop typing away, basking in the light of writing summer.

But even if your pampering activity doesn’t spur you out of writing winter, it can at least restore you. Treat yourself so you can derive the greatest value from writing winter.

Person laying their head back with their eyes closed
Photo by Adetayo Adefala on Unsplash

Read whatever you want.

So far, I’ve asked you not to edit and not write during writing winter. Is there anything writing-related I encourage you to do during this season?

Yes. Read, and read whatever you want to read.

A devilish romance novel? Go for it. A listicle of the 22 best players in your favorite sports team’s history? Sure thing. Back of a cereal box? That counts.

We know writers should be readers, and writing winter is a perfect time to read. We’re not writing or editing, after all, so we have some time on our hands.

Let’s fill it by indulging ourselves. Read that book everyone’s talking about if you want. Or, grab whatever magazine catches your fancy.

You may discover a new writer, genre, website, or magazine you enjoy reading that you otherwise wouldn’t. Plus, you’ll be absorbing words, refilling your tank for when you’re again ready to write.

Taking advantage of writing winter

Nearly all writers go through seasons. Sometimes we’re productive, stringing together meaningful, entertaining words that others enjoy.

Other times, we can’t function as writers. Nothing we write works. We’re at a loss for how we’ll ever write again.

These periods are writing winter, and they suck. But writing winter serves a purpose if we allow ourselves to take advantage of them by:

  • Giving ourselves a break.
  • Treating ourselves.
  • Reading whatever we want.

Plus, an activity we should avoid is reading or editing any of our work. Let our Younglings live for a brighter day.

And those days, writing summer, will come again. When they do, if we follow the guidance above, we’ll be sturdier, healthier writers in a position to do our best work.

This article originally appeared on Medium.

Seven Profound Things Annie Dillard Taught Alexander Chee About Writing

Before Chee was a famous writer, he learned the craft from Dillard

We all start somewhere, even Alexander Chee. 

Chee is a famous writer and poet, the author of Edinburgh and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays. But in 1989, he was a senior at Wesleyan University who hoped and wondered if he could make it as a writer.

That’s when he took Annie Dillard’s Literary Nonfiction class. Dillard’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and 300 students applied to take her course. She only accepted 13, one of which was Chee. 

Chee covers what Dillard taught him about writing in her class in this essay. Below are seven of the most profound lessons Dillard imparted to Chee. 

Show, Don’t Tell Emotions.

Which of these sentences do you enjoy reading the most?

A) The puppy was giddy.

B) The puppy galloped along the lane, its open snout exposing a lolling, pink tongue as brown ears flapped about the sides of its head.

Dillard taught Chee that good writing shows characters’ emotions. It doesn’t say it.

“Don’t tell the reader that someone was happy or sad. When you do that, the reader has nothing to see. She isn’t angry, Annie said. She throws his clothes out the window.”

Your Story’s Start May Be Buried

Dillard suggests your story may begin later than you realize. 

Months ago, I finished the manuscript for a novel. But the story wasn’t right, and I couldn’t figure out why. 

Dillard’s advice in hand, I revisited the manuscript and realized I’d buried the story’s beginning. A scene that sets up everything for what comes later in the novel was many pages deep, so now I’m bringing it to the surface. 

“The first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat, that most times, the place your draft begins is around page four…If the beginning isn’t there sometimes it’s at the end, that you’ve spent the whole time getting to your beginning, and that if you switch the first and last pages you might have a better result than if you leave them where they were.”

Verbs Make Your Story Go

Everyone hates boring writing. Writers don’t want to create it, and readers don’t want to read it.

The trick, according to Dillard, is in the verbs we use. Picking the proper verbs drives our writing and brings it to life. 

“You want vivid writing. How do we get vivid writing? Verbs, first. Precise verbs. All of the action on the page, everything that happens, happens in the verbs.”

Forget About Being Original

We hear it all the time, and still, it bears repeating. We’re the only ones who can write from our experience with our perspective.

Dillard pointed out to her students that no one expects a writer to create something that never before existed. Doing so is nearly impossible. So instead, write in your voice, from your view.

“You are the only one of you…Your unique perspective, at this time, in our age, whether it’s on Tunis or the trees outside your window, is what matters. Don’t worry about being original.”

Compare Yourself to the Best Writers

This piece of advice surprised me. Writers often talk on social media about how unhealthy it is to compare yourself to others.

Why, I wondered, did Dillard tell her students to compare themselves to some of the greatest writers who ever lived?

Then I realized Dillard wasn’t talking about comparing book sales, page views, or accolades with the greats. She was talking about comparing our writing with theirs. 

Joan Didion taught herself to write by copying Hemingway’s novels, word for word. Likewise, Hunter S. Thompson copied F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

We should set our sights high. Let’s compare ourselves to those who write the best versions of what we aim to write, be it novels, online articles, or poems. 

“Don’t compare yourselves to each other. Compare yourself to Colette, or Henry James, or Edith Wharton. Compare yourselves to the classics. Shoot there.”

You Need More Than Talent

In college, I spent a summer working on a political campaign. Some of the folks I worked with weren’t too much older than me, yet they ran the show, and some soon took influential roles on a U.S. Presidential campaign.

These people didn’t get the jobs and responsibilities they did because they were the smartest. They simply outlasted everyone else, so they were the only ones remotely qualified for the positions. 

Working in politics is brutal, and most, as I did, do it for a short while before burning out. But, if you stick with it, before long you’ll be more experienced than most. Then you’ll get the more prominent gigs.

It’s the same in writing, according to Dillard. The longer you work at it, the more likely you are to succeed.

“Talent isn’t enough. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.”

Seven Writing Truths From Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard is a champion writer. She’s won a Pulitzer Prize, published novels and essay and poem collections.

And, according to a former student, the writer Alexander Chee, Dillard is also a skilled teacher. Here’s some of the best writing advice she gave Chee:

  • Show, don’t tell your character’s emotions.
  • You may bury your story’s beginning.
  • Verbs give your story life.
  • Don’t worry about originality.
  • Compare your work against the best writers.
  • Writing requires longevity.

Keeping Dillard’s thoughts in mind can help us become better writers who stick with our art for the long haul. 

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Smelling the Reading Right Under Your Nose May Open New Doors In Your Writing

Sometimes the best writing, the writing you need to read, is where you least expect it.

It’s not news to most writers that they should read if they want to improve their craft. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing.

We read books, maybe venturing outside our preferred genres, but usually sticking to what we know and love. We may read magazines, blog posts, perhaps even vehicle owner’s manuals. (Hey, that counts!) And if you’re reading this, you probably read Medium articles.

The New Yorker is part of my regular reading rotation. Doing so requires diligence as the magazine comes out most weeks of the year. Miss one week, and you’ll never catch up.

But I don’t read every issue of The New Yorker from cover to cover. Who has the time?

Instead, I read only the stuff that interests or relates to me in some way. At least that’s how I used to read The New Yorker until I discovered something.

It Was Under My Nose This Whole Time

One section of The New Yorker I skipped every issue is titled Talk of the Town. These are short, roughly 500-700 word pieces about something or someone somehow connected to current events, often about New York City. 

Not living in New York, I figured I could ignore Talk of the Town and not miss anything. The other day, though, I read this Susan Orlean article about how she mentally approaches her writing. 

When Orlean first started at The New Yorker, she wrote for Talk of the Town. Learning to write for that section of the magazine established a writing framework she follows still today.

“The metric I live by is the Talk of the Town,” Orleans said.

Realizing that today’s Talk of the Town writers could be tomorrow’s Susan Orleans, and recognizing how Orleans compartmentalizes her writing is similar to my mindset, I decided to give Talk of the Town another chance. Good thing I did. 

The pieces are quick, engaging, entertaining, informative, and short. They are perfect templates for online writing, which is how I make my living as a self-employed freelance writer. And, newsflash, that’s the kind of writing we do here on Medium. 

Plus, as Orlean points out, it can be wise to tackle any writing project as if it’s a Talk of the Town vignette.

“I find myself sitting down and writing the equivalent of a Talk piece and thinking, wow, that wasn’t so hard, was it? and then writing the next and the next, and then suddenly I’ve written a piece or a book,” Orleans said.

Switch Up Your Reading, Open New Doors

No longer do I skip Talk of the Town. The pieces in this section of The New Yorker are ideal reading for those of us writing for an online audience. And, as Stephen King said, good writers read a lot. 

So, I stopped to smell the writing right under my nose. Now I’m enjoying well-written, professionally edited content that is a good example of my writing.

What about you? Is there writing you could be reading that will help you grow as a writer?

Try reading something different, maybe a newsletter you’ve heard about but ignored, or a book you’ve been putting off reading. You never know what doors in your writing you may open by switching up what you read.

The Three Impactful Lessons Writers Can Gleam From Bo Burnham’s Inside

Bo Burnham’s Inside is many things. Funny. Entertaining social commentary. Perhaps one of the first widely consumed pieces of post-pandemic art.

And Bo Burnham: Inside is a fantastic look at the creative process. While watching this 87-minute film, three things stood out to me as impactful lessons for writers.

Bo Burnham is a comedian/actor who got his start on YouTube in 2006. Burnham starred in the 2020 film Promising Young Woman, and he released Inside on May 30 of this year.

Burnham recorded Inside during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic from inside one room in his home. Pandemic restrictions forced Burnham to make the film alone. He was director, star, producer, lighting, grip, and so on.

Inside includes some hilarious songs commenting on present culture, such as “White Woman’s Instagram” and “FaceTime with My Mom (Tonight).” 

As the film progresses, though, things turn dark. Burnham grows frustrated, panicked by the isolation of quarantining and of making a massive piece of art. 

By spotlighting, literally at times, his creative process, Burnham provides three notable lessons for writers.

Screenshot from Bo Burnham's Inside
Bo Burnham: Inside. Photo: YouTube

Writing Ain’t Easy.

A famous writing quote, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, goes something like this: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Most writers can relate to this sentiment. Writing is painful. It’s hard, sometimes almost impossible, and not always fun. 

How many times have you labored over the same sentence, struggling to find the right words to express what’s inside your head? Who hasn’t stared at a blank page or screen, begging for a writing idea to arrive?

We know what it’s like to be alone in a room trying to birth into the world this thing that’s inside you, but we do not see how this appears.

Burnham shows us. Inside holds a mirror to the creative process we writers go through, and the results are jarring, a visual reminder that writing is not easy.

Your Endurance Will Be Tested.

Right now, I have around 40,000 words of a novel I stopped writing a few years ago. The other day on Twitter, I saw a writer say a story they’d submitted to dozens of websites and journals finally got accepted.

The cliché holds: Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. And any marathoner will tell you endurance is a critical part of finishing the race.

Writers have many definitions for finishing. It could mean completing a first draft, or it could mean publishing something you’ve written.

For Burnham, finishing Inside meant getting it ready for release on Netflix. It took him months. He worked alone inside the same room, bringing us along as he raced this marathon.

In the beginning, we see him freshly shaved, rested, and energetic. Then we watch as Burnham’s hair gets long, he grows a beard, bags appear under his eyes, and he appears on the verge of giving up.

But Burnham didn’t stop. He pushed through, dug deep, and finished Inside.

It takes endurance for us writers to finish our first draft, make it through editing and revisions, and see our creations released into the world.

It Will Hit the Fan.

In Jan. 2020, Burnham wasn’t planning to make Inside. He was instead returning to standup comedy, which he’d paused doing for a few years. COVID-19 stopped all that.

So, Burnham retreated to his house and created Inside. 

The business world calls this pivoting. Startup companies often pivot from their initial business model to something they think may make them more profitable.

Burnham pivoted. Many of us writers pivot, too.

Your story may not work, so you scrap parts of it. The article you’re writing may need a new angle or more or different sources. 

External forces can also impact your work. Your kid gets sick, your job gets busy, and we all know the wrench a pandemic can throw into the best-laid plans.

Writing is as much pivoting as it is creating. That’s why we writers need to be agile and able to withstand the unexpected. 

Three Lessons for Writers From Inside

Bo Burnham’s Inside is a magnificent look at the creative process, highlighting three crucial lessons for writers:

  • Writing is not easy.
  • Writers need endurance.
  • Things will not go as planned.

Keeping these points in mind can help us survive the tricky parts and create our best writing. And it’s powerful to know you’re not alone in what you’re going through. 

All of us writers have our difficulties. All of us, at times, want to give up. But Bo Burnham: Inside proves that by pushing through the challenges, we can create something magical.

Writers, We Gotta Slay This Bad Habit to Produce Our Most Profound Work and Find Our Audience

Here’s a trap that often snares us, writers. Instead of writing in our voice, we write to people’s expectations.

Post-it notes with words like "norms" and "expectation" on them
Photo by Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash

We give people what they expect, not what we can create. Other artists do it, too, including country music singer Mickey Guyton.

A recent New Yorker profile of Guyton relayed a conversation Guyton had a few years ago with her husband.

“I remember asking, ‘Why do you think country music isn’t working for me?’” Guyton says in the profile. “And he said, ‘Because you’re running away from everything that makes you different. Why aren’t you writing country songs from the perspective of a Black woman? Not from the perspective of what you think country music looks like for other people, but what country music is for you?’”

We writers do that, too. We run from what makes us different and instead deliver writing that looks like what others expect from us. And we do that for a few reasons.

For one thing, the experts tell us to produce writing that meets others’ expectations. You know as well as I do, there’s plenty of writing guidance that tells us to understand our audience so we can publish what they want to read. 

That advice makes sense in a business context. If you’re writing a client’s blog or publishing on Medium only to earn money, then, sure, you should probably only write what your target audience wants to read.

Many of us writers, though, want to produce—dare I say it—art. Writing for us turns inside out our existences, from our memories to our present feelings. We write poems, stories, articles, novels, and stuff we can’t even categorize.

But we sometimes let others’ expectations dictate our art. We, like Mickey Guyton, run from what makes us different so we can produce writing we think others want to see.

This challenge is perhaps the most significant obstacle I face in my writing. The last thing I want to do is embarrass or disappoint those closest to me. 

And that’s a pitiful mindset for an artist.  

There’s a scene in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers in which an officer’s trying to help a private overcome his fear.

“The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead,” the lieutenant says. “The sooner you accept that the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it.”

Writers need a similar mindset. We need to accept that we’re going to offend people. We’re not going to meet everyone’s expectations, and not everyone will like or approve of us or our writing. 

The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can function as an artist is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All art depends upon it.

That acceptance is not easy. I’ve struggled with it my whole artistic life, even today as a middle-aged man who’s finally committed to his art. And I can’t today tell you exactly how to overcome the compulsion to write to others’ expectations.

What I can do is let you know you’re not alone if this is your struggle. I can encourage you to fight the desire to write for others without first writing for yourself, and in doing so, I remind and support myself to do the same.

Write in your voice, from your perspective. Tap your deepest veins and give us what lies inside you. 

That is the art you want to produce, the art you need, for your sanity and enrichment, to create. That is the art we need you to make.