A.T.T.P. – a tiny but mighty writer’s tool (Scrivener blog post)

(Note: Scrivener comments follow post .)

(Introduction Folder)

Whenever I teach a writing class, one of the first lessons I begin with is the importance of A.T.T.P. I write those letters across the white board in large letters and then I look out to my students who don’t have a clue as to what they mean.

A (Audience), T (Tone), T (Topic), and P (Purpose) are a way to sharpen your writing. This tool provides a way to ensure you are truly aiming your writer’s target and not with trying to hit that target with eyes shut.

This is such an effective and important tool that once taught, all of my students have to include their A.T.T.P at the top of each paper so that I know who and why the paper was written. I need to know who they are writing for and why before I can offer comments.

Ready to learn this tool? It couldn’t be easier, but I promise you, if you start using it in your writing, it will sharpen all you write.

(Development Folder)

Audience (Development sub-folder)

A stands for Audience.

Before you commit one work to your paper, you need to know who your audience is. The first time I ask students to define an audience, I’ll hear things like:
• “Female”
• “Anyone interested in science”
• “People who read books”
And other such useless suggestions.

Why are they useless? Think about it how are you going to write for females? Are you going to use the same language, pace, and length for say, an audience of female young mothers as you would for female working professionals?

I would venture that they are wildly different audiences.

And how about writing on a science topic for 6th graders as opposed to an article geared toward scientists?

As an exercise, I sometimes make my students actually picture what a typical reader looks like. I have them imagine a reader for the National Enquirer and then a typical reader for National Geographic. I start hearing qualifiers like age, education, and even in some cases what a reader might be wearing (fair or not, the National Enquirer reader usually has elastic pants on.)

The point here is that if you can see your audience clearly then you will know how to speak to them.

Tone (Development sub-folder)

T stands for Tone.

This is the voice that you bring to your piece. In my Professional Writing classes, I warn my students that under NO circumstances is humor allowed in job-related documents. It’s the wrong tone. If you are writing at a job, then you must always write with a professional tone.
Save your humorous tone for your blog writing when you’re off the clock. On your own blog, your voice – your tone is absolutely appropriate.

If we tie tone into audience then it’s easy to see that we could match a more casual tone for the National Enquirer reader and would use one a little more authoritarian or educational for National Geographic.

Pick a tone and then consistently use it from start to finish.

Topic (Development sub-folder)

The second T stands for Topic.

This is what you are writing about. Sound obvious right? You might be surprised how often people veer from what they are writing about.

Want to see some great examples of this? Check out letters to the editor. Often these letters are written when the writer is angry and let’s face it, when you are angry, you probably aren’t the most coherent.

I teach my students that when they hear or see “and another thing…” the speaker or writer has lost their topic.

It’s not that what they have to say is not important, it’s that that additional thought belongs somewhere else Put it in another letter to the editor.)

By keeping your writing to the same topic, you’re making sure that your message is strong, clear, and easy to be understood.

Purpose (Development sub-folder)

P stands for Purpose.

This is the reason you are writing what you’re writing. Do you want someone to change their behavior? Then make sure you’ve included benefits and good reasons for them to change.
Are you trying to teach someone a new procedure? Then make sure you include plenty of examples and clearly outline what to do.

Just as you hate to be stuck next to someone who just “talks to hear themselves talk” so does an audience hate to read something that is going nowhere and was written just to be written.
Don’t waste anyone’s time. Make sure that every sentence you write supports the reason for writing your piece.

(Conclusion Folder)

I’m such a big believer (preacher) of this little tool. I’ve heard again and again from my students that it has made them think about how they approach their writing and I’m often told that once they’ve learned this, they can’t unlearn it.
I even suggest that my students tape a card with A.T.T.P to the side of their monitor so they will be reminded of this approach every single time they write *anything*. How’s how universal this tool is.

Need to send an email to your boss asking for time off?
Figure out your A.T.T.P before you write word one.

Have writer’s block?

Go over your A.T.T.P, I’m willing to bet that in the middle of your piece you’ve changed your audience, tone, topic, or purpose. Go back, figure out where you got lost and get back on that original path.

A.T.T.P – it’s such a simply tool, but it can make a huge difference when you use it to sharpen your writing so that you can cleanly hit your target.


 Scrivener notes:

  • This is my second post using Scrivener. I have to say that it was a lot easier than yesterday’s (it just turned out that I had two posts in a row this week, figured I’d go to town with Scrivener.)
  • Word length: 910 words
  • Time to write: about 35 minutes
  • I used 4 sub-folders (instead of 3) under the “Development” folder and I changed the last folder name from “Completion” to “Conclusion” otherwise the process was the same one I used yesterday.
  • This post is not really a fair representation of blog writing though, I didn’t have to do any research or gather any notes. I’ve taught this information so often that I could “hear” myself give the lecture. I simply “dictated” this post – Is started at the introduction and wrote it in order until the end.
  • When writing this, it felt a little stilted, but that might just me getting used to the process. I’d be interested if, as the reader, you could tell that I was using an organizational tool to write it. Did it feel a little too structured/forced or did you think it flowed okay?

Thanks for the feedback, more than a few of us are playing around with this tool, all comments and questions are greatly appreciated.



Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

Writing a Quick Blog Post with Scrivener

scrivener-512I recently read an article (accompanied by a video) on how to quickly write a blog post using Scrivener. As you know, I’m currently working on a project using Scrivener and well, I figured I might as well jump feet first into the deep end.

What follows is my post that was written using Scrivener’s folders.

  • Topic: What you can learn about writing from chickens
  • Length of piece: 400 words
  • Introduction: 100 words
  • Development : 200 words
  • Conclusion: 100

I’ve noted in the text in red where each folder starts.

What Chickens Can Teach You About Writing


I write about the lessons I’ve learned from living with a flock of backyard chickens.

Oh sure, you can learn things like:

  • A freshly laid egg does not need to be refrigerated due to something called the bloom that protects the egg from air/water loss and bacteria.
  • The pecking order is a real and sometimes heart-breaking reality.
  • Unless you have a heart of stone, baby chicks will always make you say “awwwwwwwwww.”

I’ve certainly learned a lot from my chickens, but it doesn’t end with their care and maintenance. I’ve learned some parenting lessons (pecking order is alive and well amongst teen girls) and I’ve learned a thing or two about best practices in writing from my backyard flock.


Chickens? Writing? (Development sub-folder)

Okay, listen, I can hear you clucking all the way from my little writer’s desk. Chickens? Writing? Surely that one is a stretch for even those with the greatest imagination.

But hear me out.

Chickens have different points of view (Development sub-folder)

Chickens constantly take different points of view. A chicken’s eyes are located on the sides of their heads (not facing forward like ours.) This means that when a chicken wants to see the world (or that lovely green bug traveling up a stem) she has to constantly adjust her head, by viewing the world from first one side, and then the other, she is creating depth in her vision field.

Learning to view from different perspectives is an invaluable skill for any writer.

Chickens work at scratching all day long (Development sub-folder)

Chickens use their feet to constantly scratch at the dirt in order to unearth insects and yummy goodness. The resultant etchings are referred to by what many of our early school teachers called our handwriting – chicken scratch.

Chickens live to eat, when you are producing (an egg) on a daily basis, you need to really work at it. Just think if we put that much effort into our scratching – we just might be able to also produce an egg a day.

To be productive, you’ve got to work at it.

Chickens take breaks (Development sub-folder)

In the warm afternoon sun, you’ll often find chickens taking what is called a dust bath followed by a quick nap in the sun.

The dust bath consists of throwing dirt over their bodies; believe it or not, it’s a way of cleaning out mites and insects from their feathers.

And the nap is simply a way to enjoy the sunny day.

A good writer knows how to take care of herself and when it’s time for a little break.


Cross that road

Finally, here’s a good writing lesson from our friends the chickens. You know that old joke:

“Why did the chicken cross the road?”

“To get to the other side.”

As a writer use that advice to get on with your work. Do whatever it takes (butt in chair, finding a room of your own, writing in a favorite notebook) for you to get to the other side of your project.

And when you reach that other side (publication or just satisfaction from your work) do yourself a favor and take one last bit of advice from my flock – be sure to crow loud enough about your accomplishment for all to hear.


  • My post came in at 641 words – I clearly overwrote from my original projected 400 words but to be fair, the total word count at the bottom of the Scrivener document made me aware that I was going over and so I did keep an eye on extra verbiage.
  • Time from start to finish – about 1 hour – but hey, that included re-watching the video and following it step by step.
  • The video was helpful but the tool has since changed. A few menu options are different.
  • I tried several times and could not get my document to compile (kept getting an error message.) What I finally ended up doing was to use the “composite feature” which showed me the entire document. I then cut and pasted the pieces into this post. Not exactly a time-saving procedure but I have a feeling that when I figure out how to compile that little bump will fall away.
  • Breaking up the post into sections (folders) is exactly how I like to write my non-fiction. In this case I worked on the middle section first, added the conclusion and *then* wrote the introduction. This is how I teach my technical writing students how to write – stuck at the introduction? Then start with the middle.

Will I be using Scrivener again for posts? You betcha. Especially for my non-fiction, teaching posts – you can’t teach a thought if you don’t approach it with organization. Not to go too Zen on you, but I’m certain that the more I use Scrivener, the more I will use Scrivener.

As always, I’m very interested in your comments and questions about this process. Scrivener seems to be a tremendous writing tool and I think that once the learning curve is behind you, there is great potential for its use in your writing.


UPDATE: I figured out what was causing my project to not compile, even though I had named the project, there was a top folder in the project called “draft” – that folder needs to be renamed (presumably to the project name) before you can compile. Once it has been renamed, everything works fine.


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

What Do You Want from a Writer’s Retreat?

I’d like to talk with you about retreats for writers. The immediate answer to any of these questions can easily be ‘well, it depends’, but overall, I’m curious to learn what type of writing retreat you’d benefit from most within the next 12 months.

View from kitchen table of Maine cabin for retreat - many seating options!

View from kitchen table of Maine cabin for retreat – many seating options!

When you hear “writer’s retreat” what time frame leaps to mind? A few hours, an overnight somewhere, two or three nights, a week or more…

  • If your answer is ‘a few hours’, there are “write ins” popping up now where space is reserved for up to half a day, and you can show up for as much of that time as you like — it’s more for camaraderie in being with other writers at the same time than anything else — I like doing these during November (National Novel Writing Month)

How do you feel when you think about a writer’s retreat? Calm, happy, anxious, dread, excited, bummed, inspired, scared…

  • my feelings can run the gamut depending on what type of project leaps to mind — most generally, though, thinking about being around other writers makes me smile and outweighs any anxiety — if I had to pick 1 word, it would be ‘bliss’

Where do you search for information on writer’s retreats? Social media, ShawGuides, writing groups/organizations you belong to, libraries, book stores, general Internet searches…

  • sometimes too many choices result in choosing to not even look around at options — my favorite type of writing retreat is one combined with an adventure vacation (like rafting down the Colorado River [did it], or spending a week at a Wyoming dude ranch [did it], or learning to cook in Italy [on my bucket list], or camping in New Zealand [not sure if that one exists yet!]

What is important to you in a retreat? time alone to write, a group setting, critiques/feedback, sharing your work, instruction, mentorship, everyone working in same or multiple genres…

  •  All of the above, please! When working on fiction, a mix of genres works well for me. But when I’m focused on non-fiction I prefer everyone to be the same — there’s something different for me when crafting imaginative stories than truth-based stories/articles/essays/manuscripts.
Water view seating for same Maine cabin getaway. Variety is good!

Water view seating for same Maine cabin getaway. Variety is good!

If you’re new to writing, is it a feature to have experienced writers in the group, or a deterrent? And likewise, if you’re multipublished, does a retreat with newbie writers attract you?

  • As long as expectations for the group are stated and agreed to up front, a mix of experience levels can benefit all attendees.

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on writer’s retreats.

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

Weekend Edition – The Secret of Creative Space Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

Your writing needs more than time. It needs space.

space nebulaThere is never enough time to practice your art. You are forever battling against the many demands life puts on the precious hours in your day, fighting for your creative life. You eventually learn that you’re never going to simply find the time, you have to make the time, stealing a few minutes here and a few minutes there. Making choices in order to make art.

So you work hard to carve out pockets of time for yourself. Maybe you get up a little early, or stay up a little late. Maybe you forgo an hour of television, or learn to work amidst the chaos of children who haven’t yet gone to bed. Lunch breaks, waiting in line, your public transport commute – you commandeer these moments for your creative crusade. Each day you wrest another small bit of time from the clutches of life’s obligations and responsibilities.

You are doing a good job. A great job.

You are making progress, taking all-important baby steps towards building your creative life. But, at some point, you start to feel like something isn’t quite “clicking.” The initial elation of (at last!) acquiring time for your art has lost a bit of its shine. Your cache of minutes and hours is growing, but you aren’t feeling any more creatively fulfilled. Something is missing.


As intangible as time is, it’s still only an instrument, not an inspiration. Time alone will not release your creativity. Minutes and hours are only an inert ingredient in the creative process. Without the right catalyst, they will just lie there, staring at you reproachfully as they slip, unused, through your anxious fingers.

More than mere time, you need space.

I’m not talking about physical space. I’m talking about headspace.

It’s not enough to simply make the time, you have to give yourself the gift of that time – wholly and without strings.

You have to step into your stolen moments as open, light, and unencumbered as you can be. You want to be happily distracted by the things that pique your curiosity, not tangled up in your day-to-day worries. You want to be able to surrender all your attention to the creative task at hand, setting everything else aside, if only for a brief moment.

You want to lose yourself in the creative process.

This blissful state is often called “flow,” and you find it when you slip into that state of being where you are not so much working on your art as becoming your art. This is the space where your creativity thrives. This is the space that you need to create within the minutes and hours that you’ve fought for.


It’s tough to create instantaneous headspace when you’re cramming your writing into the nooks and crannies of a busy day. Though I don’t believe in waiting for the muse, I also don’t believe in on-demand creativity. Imagine inviting your muse to a creative session, and then – the minute she she sits down with a cup of tea – commanding her to inspire you. That probably wouldn’t go down very well, right?

While there’s a case to be made for simply going through the motions in order to jumpstart your creative process, writing is not like laying bricks. Laying bricks is very straightforward. You place one brick atop another with mortar in between, and – over time – you build a wall. It doesn’t much matter what you’re thinking about while you’re stacking the bricks. It’s a purely mechanical process, and the outcome is dictated simply by how much time you put into the effort. More time means more bricks means a bigger wall. Simple math.

Writing, or any other creative endeavor, requires a different kind of approach and an entirely different kind of equation. Creativity is not simply a matter of time + effort = art. Though this approach might eventually produce work you’re proud of simply through persistence and a kind of brute force, you will find the process more pleasant and the results more pleasing if you can add headspace into the mix: time + space + effort = art.


How do you create headspace?

Think of it like giving yourself breathing room.

Like letting go.

Allow your canvas to be blank. Clear your mind. Daydream. Stare out the window into space. Take away the pressure to produce. Eliminate expectations. Schedule creative time to do nothing.

Give yourself permission to step outside your life for a little bit. Forget about your worries. Be someone else. Think someone else’s thoughts.

Setting aside time to work on a particular creative goal is an admirable practice. But letting your inner task master own and manage all your creative time will eventually lead to burn out. You can’t always be pushing. Art is not a race. Consistent work and productivity are good things, but there’s a balance to be struck. All work and no play makes Jane a little sad and crazy. And it definitely robs her of her creative fire, leaving her frustrated and uninspired.

There is a natural ebb and flow to your creativity. And while you cannot ever run out of creativity, you can drain its energy. You can push too hard for too long and get stuck, like a wind-up toy that just keeps trying to walk forward even though it’s hit a wall.

Before you get to that point, give yourself a break. Step back. Explore. Play. Go ahead and fall down the rabbit hole. On purpose. Forget about word counts and just rest your creative muscles. Remember that usually epiphanies come from unexpected quarters. Sometimes the best way to get your synapses firing is to stop trying so damn hard, and instead just relax.

Creating headspace is a matter of removing things in order to make room for other things. Prioritizing things differently, just for a little while.


You will not always be able to add the catalyst of headspace to your writing time. Sometimes, you will only have time, and that’s okay. When that happens, focus your efforts on the more automatic parts of the writing process – editing, research, etc. If it’s all you can manage in that moment, just go through the motions of putting one word after another. Don’t worry about a lack of inspiration. Remember that the ebb and flow is natural. Feel free to make mistakes. Do the work, but don’t let the critical voices in your head make you judge the work before you’re ready.

But when you have the opportunity, give yourself the gift of space to create. Give yourself permission to work without a specific goal, without a safety net, without a predetermined path. Let go of preconceived notions, weighty expectations, and creative assumptions. Claim your creative freedom and rediscover your creative joy.


What I’m {Learning About} Writing: “Just Right” Story/Book Lengths

Painting by Katharine Pyle

Painting by Katharine Pyle

Do you ever wonder about the typical lengths for different kinds of stories and novels? I do.

This week was the first of six classes in the flash fiction course I’m taking via Grub Street’s online venue. While I’ve been learning a lot about the flash fiction form by reading Rose Metal Press’ Field Guide to Flash Fiction, I loved the very simple definition that Sue Williams provided. In a brief video introducing the concept of flash fiction, Williams states that a flash fiction story differs from other similar forms (such as vignettes and prose poems) because it has three elements: character, conflict, and resolution.

As I began noodling on story ideas for my first homework assignment, I repeated this trio of criteria in my head like a mantra, “Character, conflict, resolution … character, conflict, resolution …” I bounced each idea that came to me off these three concepts, and found that it was pretty simple to tell when I had an actual story vs. when I just had a vignette or a prose poem. I still haven’t finished my homework, but I’ve got some good starter ideas.

While I was wrestling with how to tell my stories in the extremely condensed flash fiction form, I came across a Writer’s Digest post that provides “rule of thumb” word count ranges for a variety of written forms. In Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post, Chuck Sambuchino provides an overview of not only standard target word counts for various genres, but also a little insight into why these word counts land where they do, and when it’s okay to break the rules.

Here’s a quick rundown of the standard, “safe” word counts according to Sambuchino:

  • Adult Commercial and Literary Novels: 80,000 – 90,000
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy: 100,000 – 115,000
  • Middle Grade: 20,000 – 55,000
  • Young Adult: 55,000 – 69,999
  • Picture Books: 500 – 600
  • Westerns: 50,000 – 65,000
  • Memoirs: 80,000 – 89,999


What I’m Reading: Lots and Lots!

salem athaneum stacksDo you read more than one book at a time?

I used to be a monogamous reader, sticking to just one novel at a time. In recent years, however, I’ve become an overtly polygamous reader. At the moment, I’m reading one novel on my Kindle, listening to another on Audible, and chipping away at several paperback anthologies of short stories. I’m also wrapping up the Field Guide to Flash Fiction and just picked up another book of essays on the craft (which I may or may not get to before it’s due back at the library).

I wonder if my increased reading pace has something to do with getting a little older and feeling the pressure of so-many-books-so-little-time. I feel a certain defiance that makes me want to ignore the rest of the world so that I can read more. I swear that when I’m sitting at my desk, diligently hammering away on client deadlines, the books in my reading pile across the room sometimes whisper to me.

Does that ever happen to you?


And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:


Finally, a quote for the week:

pin creative surrender

Here’s to giving yourself creative space as well as time. Happy reading. Happy writing. See you on the other side! 
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

Friday Fun — Writing Al Fresco

Friday Fun is a group post from the writers of the NHWN blog. Each week, we’ll pose and answer a different, get-to-know-us question. We hope you’ll join in by providing your answer in the comments.

QUESTION: With the weather (finally!) warming up around this neck of the woods, the temptation to take our work outdoors is growing. Do you write “al fresco”? Why or why not? 

LisaJJackson_2014Lisa J. Jackson: Oh, definitely, yes! In the mornings I sit out on my deck – love feeling the sun warm me up as it rises above the trees. In the afternoons, I enjoy sitting out at a table with a canopy, so I can partake of the fresh air and be shaded from the sun, while having an icy beverage. I love being able to write al fresco, especially with pen and paper!


Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: I love to write outside. I especially love taking my journal to the beach and writing while listening to the crashing of the waves. One December I took a beach chair and a sleeping bag to the beach on a day when a storm was approaching, and I’ll never forget the way the waves pounded the beach and the wind whipped the spray toward me. Rather than making me feel small, I felt like I was a part of Mother Nature’s majesty that day, and many days since.

Sitting on my back deck writing on my laptop with my feet up is good, too!

SuddenlyJamie AvatarJamie Wallace: Though I love the idea of writing outdoors, I rarely take advantage of the opportunity. The truth is that while the concept is an alluring one, the practice usually leaves me stiff and sore. Those idyllic stock photos of writers pecking away at a laptop keyboard amidst a field of wildflowers, or scrawling who knows what wisdom in a Moleskine notebook while perched atop a trailside boulder do not, in my experience, reflect reality. When I try to channel my inner Thoreau, I usually wind up contorted over my notebook, scribbling in an almost illegible handwriting that makes me cringe with shame.

Happily, my living room (where I do most of my writing, either curled up on the couch with a notebook, or seated at my one-of-a-kind writing desk) almost feels like being outside. The whole front wall is glass – a big slider and four large picture windows. There’s a busy bird feeder on the deck directly in front of my desk, and the view beyond is of the sky and the river. Now that the weather has warmed up, I open up both door and windows and invite the outdoors in. It’s lovely, really.


wendy-shotWendy Thomas: Like Jamie, I love the idea of writing outside. However, because I do so much work on a computer, it’s a little difficult. The glare from the screen, the necessary power source, the bugs, the red correcting pen I left inside the house…

The idea is beautiful – communing with nature as you write. Who wouldn’t want that, right?

But the reality (for me anyway) is that I’d rather do my writing in the house near an open window and save my outdoor time for doing outdoor activities.

Deborah Lee Luskin writing studio

This photo was taken in the winter; the view’s now all green.

 Deborah Lee Luskin: My 8′ x 10′ studio has six windows, so it’s like writing outdoors – with all the conveniences of power, window screens and great views of woods and a meadow.

A Lesson Learned from Improv

This past winter, I took an Improv 101 class at ImprovBoston in Cambridge, MA. I had a great time and I learned a lot. I expected to apply a lot of what I learned to my role as a public speaker, but I also took home a lot of tips to help my writing—specifically to boost my creativity. I wrote about it here.

This spring I’ve been taking the 201 level Improv class and it’s been, once again, a lot of fun. I’ve also learned something every week that I have been able to apply directly to my writing life.

For example, one week we talked a lot about “status.” High status vs. low status; and we created characters who were either high status or low status. Since it’s improv, we didn’t make a list on a blackboard, we just started scenes and had our characters show characteristics of either high status or low status. It was amazing how quickly we (as the audience) could tell who was higher status and who was lower status, no matter what the scene was.

We played one game where we had Post-It notes with a number or letter (aces low) from a deck of cards on our foreheads. The scene was a wedding reception and we all walked around talking to the other guests. We had to figure out, by the way the others treated us, what our status was. After we finished the scene, we lined up according to how high or low status we thought we were.

Those of us who were very high status or very low status were pretty accurate in our assessment. When one party guest asked me to find the caterers and see if they had any more bacon-wrapped scallops to pass around, I figured I was pretty low status—and I was right. Those who were in the middle were not as accurate, although they knew they were in the middle.

On my drive home from class, I started thinking about the character in the short story I’ve been working on. I’ve been having a hard time showing him to be the person I see in my head. My critique group commented that he seemed immature and naïve. After that improv class, I could see I’d given this character some low status characteristics that took away from his authority and his believability as a physician.

More importantly, I could see how to fix that.

Just as I don’t want to confuse my audience when I’m doing improv, I don’t want to confuse my reader in my writing. I went through my short story and made my character’s words, gestures, and thoughts more consistent with who he really is—and I made sure that his “status” in relation to the other characters in my story was equally clear.

What’s the status of your latest story and characters?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, and family physician. I also do some public speaking and am so glad I tried improv as a way to improve my public speaking skills. I’ve never had so much in a class before–and I’ve taken a lot of classes over the years!

Accepting Rejection


I started submitting short stories to literary journals in the snail mail era, and amassed enough rejection slips to wallpaper a small house. photo credit: http://www.freephotosbank.com

There was a time when I took editorial rejection personally, allowing Dear Writer letters send me into a tailspin of despair. Having my work passed – even with praise – was so painful, that for a while I stopped submitting entirely – and delayed becoming published as a result.

Then, at a dinner party, I met a writer who had made it his goal to amass one hundred rejections in a single year. In the process, he placed eight stories.

By then, I was no longer writing short stories, but novels, and was seeking an agent. I researched likely matches, queried several at a time, received multiple requests for my manuscript, and eventually had two different agents interested in my work. Suddenly, I had a choice.

In hindsight, I can now see that in those early days of sending out short stories, I made three critical mistakes.

  1. I sent out too few submissions;
  2. I didn’t follow up on passes with personal notes;
  3. I took the rejections personally.


I sent my short stories to five journals total, rather than five journals at a time. Simultaneous submissions are nearly universally accepted these days, and there are many journals, both print and on-line, that accept them. But the truth is, many are inundated with submissions, and response time can be long. So it’s a good practice to identify up to a dozen or so journals that would be a good match for your work. It even helps to think of the editors as your audience. In fact, they are. Whatever you do to make their job easier increases your changes of having your work read.

Three simple ways to please a first reader include:

  1. Send only the kind of work their magazine asks for;
  2. Follow their submission guidelines exactly;
  3. Make sure your work is not only your best, but also properly formatted. (I’ve judged contests, and I can tell you: formatting matters).

Because editors are often inundated with submissions, because reading is subjective, and because journals may have specific needs, your submission might not make the cut this time. As soon as you hear from one magazine, send the story out to another. Have a list of suitable places for each story, and keep the story in circulation until either it places or you exhaust your initial list.


Most of my stories were rejected with personal notes from editors who said something positive about my work. Rather than send them another story while my work was fresh in the editor’s mind, I wallowed in self-pity, which felt good at the time. But it’s really self-indulgent and counterproductive.

Especially at the beginning of the submission process, before you have any stories published, it’s good to think of sending out stories as a way of introducing yourself to the journals you’ve identified as a good fit for your voice. Consider submissions as a kind of networking, and when an editor responds, follow up with more work. Editors are human, and relationships matter.


Reading is personal; selection for publication subjective. Just because a journal didn’t take your short story doesn’t mean it’s not any good; it really means it’s not right for that journal at that moment in time.

That said, if you strike out a dozen times with one story, read it again. Ask others to read it. And if you ask others for feedback, listen to what they have to say.

One of the hardest and most important skills to develop as a writer is listening to your readers’ responses without defending your work. But that’s the subject of another post.


Deborah Lee Luskin started submitting in the snail mail era, and amassed enough rejection slips to wallpaper a small house. Learn more at http://www.deborahleeluskin.com