How to begin writing when you can’t

 

My son had to write a paper for his college class. He had a week to do it and while he did write some notes over the weekend, he left writing the bulk of the report until the night before it was due. It wasn’t that he’s a bad writer. It wasn’t that he didn’t know the subject.

It was that he was overwhelmed and he didn’t know where to start.

We’ve all been there before thinking how on earth can I write anything that’s going to be judged (in this case graded) by someone else? It’s too big to do, so I’ll just sit here and do nothing in my fear-induced paralysis.

The problem with ignoring the challenge is that it doesn’t get done. And if you want to get a project done (or pass a class) then you’ve got to buckle down and get started. This is how I advised him:

First step – write an outline. It doesn’t have to be a complex outline just put the general points.

  • Introduction – definitions, relevant history, purpose of paper, layout of discussion
  • Part One – definitions, how it relates, good things, bad things, graphic
  • Part Two – definitions, how it relates, good things, bad things, graphic
  • Part Three – definitions, how it relates, good things, bad things, graphic
  • Summary – bring it home baby, repeat your purpose and state why you have proved it.

He knew what he wanted to say, he just hadn’t known how. Using this format, my son banged out an outline. But even though he now had a structure, my son was still stuck.

Second step – write. “So what’s the easiest part to write about?” I asked. He pointed to Part Three of his outline which described a type of technology that he found interesting. “Well then go ahead and start there.”

As long as you have a structure and you’ve identified your purpose, you never have to start at the beginning if you don’t want to. Have a killer idea for a summary?, well then jot that down first. Feel more confident about one particular topic? then write about it. You don’t have to worry about complete sentences, or even coherent paragraphs, you simply need to capture what it is you want to write about.

Because once you start writing, you start writing.

Following this approach, he was able to crank out a first draft. But as we all know, first drafts are not meant to be judged by anyone. He knew his paper had holes and he knew that it didn’t transition well from one topic to another but he didn’t know how to fix it.

Third step – get feedback. This is where a trusted confident comes in handy. My husband sat in the room with my son and while my son read the paper out loud my husband asked questions like Why? and How? when it appeared that information was missing or was confusing. When you are so close to the subject you can be guaranteed that you’ll miss things. A second pair of eyes is critical.

There was no judgment, there was no criticism. There was only a desire to make the document stronger.

The paper got done, it was passed in the next day and my son let out the breath he had held since it had been assigned. This is the method my son ended up using to write his assignment, but take a look at the steps:

  1. Outline
  2. Write
  3. Get feedback

And you’ll recognize that the process he used for his paper is the exact same method every writer uses for every piece of writing. It’s not magic, it’s just a path to the goal. As a writer, you need to step back in order to break your work down *before* you put pen to paper – you need to know where your words are going. Once that’s done you then work to coherently build the parts into what will become the glorious whole that is your piece.

***

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.

Are Writing Contests Valuable?

blueribbonLast Sunday, I attended the awards ceremony for Vermont’s Scholastic Art & Writing Contest at the Brattleboro Art and Museum Center.

The art and writing on display was fantastic; no wonder The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are considered “the most prestigious recognition program for creative teens in grades 7 – 12.” These kids have talent!

The museum was buzzing with teenage energy as kids and their parents from all over the state saw their work hanging on the museum walls or read award-winning writing published in binders for all to read.

At noon, the crowd sat for the ceremony, which included exhortations from both Danny Lichtenfeld, the museum director, and from Roberto Lugo, a potter, social activist, spoken word poet and educator. Each in his own way, they told the kids to keep breaking the rules and fixing social and global problems they’re inheriting from us.

Vermont Scholastic Awards

Roberto Lugo

Lugo’s remarks were, well, remarkable: In a combination of rap, poetry and prose, he conveyed the story of his trajectory from urban poverty to academic and artistic achievement in language bordering on song – and received a standing ovation. Truly inspirational.

Then came the awards. Those earning Honorable mention were asked to stand; then the Silver Key winners; finally, the Gold Key winners came forward for a group photo.

This is where the event went sour for me. I wished all three groups had a photo op.

I attended the awards ceremony because this was the second year I’ve been a writing judge. Even though judges are given guidelines, which are very helpful, the process is still, ultimately, subjective. But more than that, I wanted the Honorable Mentions and Silver Keys to stand in front of the audience and have their photos taken in acknowledgement of their efforts. I didn’t want the awards to be quite so stratifying.

This has brought the entire enterprise of contests for artistic creation to a head for me. Even though my first novel won a prestigious award, I’m suspect of contests turning literature and visual arts into a kind of artistic World Series.

Scholastic Awards

Artistic expression is not a horserace; it’s neither limited nor competitive.

Artistic expression is not a horserace; it’s neither limited nor competitive. And while the Scholastic Awards are meant to acknowledge excellence and encourage youthful talent, I fear that the way in which we do so will backfire, on both the developing artists and writers and on the very essence of artistic expression, which creates its own rules, shows us a new way of seeing, and tells its own story.

Is making art its own reward? What do you think about writing contests and awards?

Deborah headshotDeborah Lee Luskin posts an essay every Wednesday at www.deborahleeluskin.com

OneNote – A Tool for Organizing Lists, Tasks, Projects, and More

onenote_exampleTools, tools, and more tools, right? There are so many online and mobile options for helping with productivity that it’s impossible to keep up with them all.

Here’s one I find quite beneficial.

I’ve been using Microsoft’s OneNote for a couple of years now. It’s part of the Office Suite (for Mac and PC), but also an individual, free download for tablet, computer, or phone.

Example of a ToDo list (boxes to check off)

Example of a ToDo list (boxes to check off)

I use OneNote to:

  • Plan trips – everything from itineraries to packing lists to pictures and videos
  • Make lists – for groceries, household needs, gifts, books to read, movies to see, TV shows to check out, music and bands I like, people to follow or connect with, birthdays…
  • Coordinate projects for clients – there is a feature where you can share a notebook with 1 or more people and enable them to edit/update, too. Collaboration is powerful!
  • Track tasks – for myself, my parents, organizations I have an active role in…
  • Collect ideas – for stories, blog posts, articles…

It’s easy to insert URLs, pictures, documents, videos, and more into this app.

onenote_insertbar

What’s included on the “Insert” tab in OneNote

A feature I appreciate: similar to Google Drive, changes are saved automatically; there is no need to click a ‘save’ button.

A big benefit of this app (for me) is that it is available whether or not I am connected to the Internet. I can be on my phone and look at and add or change content easily. The application synchronizes with the desktop version whenever possible, and vice versa.

I seldom need access to my grocery shopping list or items-needed-at-Walmart list, so I’m always updating those through my phone. Most other lists are through my laptop. The versatility and ease of use make this application a handy resource to help me stay organized — and eliminate the need for notes on napkins and scraps of paper.

There is even a tab where you can draw – with or without a stylus pen – as a way to grab those creative images or ideas that come to mind.

I find OneNote versatile and handy and love having one place where I can keep track of a limitless number of things.

What is your favorite productivity-enhancing tool?

*The above commentary and review reflect my opinion and thoughts on OneNote. It does not imply approval or acceptance from other NHWN bloggers. I was not compensated for this review in any way.

lisajjacksonLisa 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 and individuals tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Friday Fun – What Kind of Writer Are You?

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:  What kind of writer did you set out to be? What was your vision for your writing life? Has your journey brought you to that destination, or at least put you on the path toward that goal; or has your writing adventure taken unexpected turns into new territory?

JME5670V2smCROPJamie Wallace: I grew up dreaming of being a novelist. I imagined myself nestled in a modest-but-cozy writing studio sipping endless chai lattes and steaming mugs of chamomile tea while collaborating with my muse. I pictured cats purring loudly from between sprawling piles of notes and research materials while I tapped out my latest middle grade fantasy or new adult magical surrealist tale. Of course, when I had this idyllic vision of what my writing life could be, I had almost no understanding of the publishing world and was not even yet fully independent from my parents.

That was a long time ago.

I’m now a middle-aged single mom who makes her living as a freelance “marcom” (marketing and communications) writer. I have been hustling this gig for the last ten years, and I have learned a LOT during that time. I still aspire to write fiction (and I swear to all the gods of inspiration and artistic creativity that I will accomplish that goal eventually), but in the meantime I am not sorry that I have carved out a different kind of writing life for myself. There is such a diverse range of paths available to a writer, and none of them are without merit. I am exploring other nonfiction avenues even now and am excited to see how my writing life will evolve from here.

lisajjacksonLisa J. Jackson: I can’t remember what type of writer I imagined myself being! Is that bad? It wasn’t a career encouraged in my household, so I focused on business and imagined being a math teacher (I loved algebra and trigonometry), but I got a taste of fiction in 5th grade and enjoyed short story writing for myself. I devoured novels like they were meals – romances, dark fiction (Stephen King was a fave), mysteries – Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys, sci-fi. I loved alternate world craft where I could be transported away from my life.

I dabbled in writing my own short mysteries, and kept journals. But my focus for a career was business – finance and accounting. Eventually I transitioned in writing process guides and then technical manual writing. Always continuing to write for myself. And now I have several first drafts of novels needing to be dusted off – one is actively worked on and I plan to finish it before the end of the summer.

I like the twisty turny path of my writing. I’ve had bylines in newspapers and magazines, I’ve won fiction contests for short writing, I’ve had short stories published, I plan to see novels published, and there’s so much business-related writing I’m not paid for that I wouldn’t trade in for the world.

I enjoy the variety of my writing projects and hope to always have it!

 

 

Friday Fun What’s the writing project you keep avoiding?

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:   We all have at least one. What’s that one writing project that you keep avoiding?

 

wendy-shot Wendy E.N. Thomas – for me, it’s a fiction story I had started years ago during a NaNoWriMo effort. Each night I’d read what I had written out loud to the kids and to this day they still talk about that story. There was something a little magical about it.

For whatever reason, I’ve convinced myself that I stink at fiction and that my skills are forever tied to non-fiction. Non-fiction speaks to me and it feels so much safer than fiction.

But perhaps it’s time to revisit that story of mine because even if it falls flat – that would be far better than always asking “what if?”

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon: Right now, I’m with Wendy. I have been working on nonfiction so much that fiction seems very exotic to me these days. I still have lots of ideas for fiction pieces, and sometimes I jot them down, but I haven’t written any fiction in the past year. There’s a story a wrote a first draft of for NaNo a few years ago that I’d love to get back to, but I’m not sure when.

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin: I’m not sure if I’m avoiding the two books that accompany me on every walk, while I’m cooking dinner, and even into the shower. They’re like good friends who live far away. I’m looking forward to when they’ll come and visit. When I called it avoidance, the separation made me anxious; lately, I’ve come to respect the richness of our time apart – and I’m looking forward to the intensity when we do make time for one another.

Writing muses

I’ve always collected things just as I collect memories, so I happen to have many different muses around my office (so many that at times it looks more like a play yard than an office.) Among my current top 3 are:

My Writing Witch – I’ve had this little doll for years and somewhere along the way she lost her broom, but she’s stood by me in good times and bad.

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An inspirational magazine cover sent to me by a kindred spirit. It motivates me to be strong and persevere.

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My beloved office mate – Pippin, who has never once disagreed with the direction my writing has taken. Such a good boy.

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Look around your writing space. What’s there that inspires and motivates you?

***

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.

Friday Fun – 2 Month Check-up – How’s it going?

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:  

Ride on! Rough-shod if need be, smooth-shod if that will do, but ride on! Ride on over all obstacles, and win the race!

Charles Dickens

It’s the end of February – that’s right the second month of the year is coming to a close. Time to take a look at the writing goals you set in January.

How’s it going? Rough? Smooth? Are you where you had planned to be? If not, what adjustments do you need to take?

**

wendy-shot Wendy E.N. Thomas – I have to admit, it’s been rough. Between the insanity that is going on politically in the United States and what is going on in my body (requires surgery) I have not been able to focus much on my writing, when I sit down there always seems to be another wildfire that pops up needing attention. HOWEVER, because I know the best way to get out from being overwhelmed is to prioritize and then do the things on your list one-at-a-time, I am *finally* getting back to my writing.

It’s right there on my list as one of my top priorities. Every. Day.

It’s not that things are any less crazy, it’s that I’m taking control of how I react and while I am still allocating sufficient time to react (and protest), I’m also now scheduling in prioritized-time to write. So yeah, I’m back on track, baby.

LL Headshot

Lee Laughlin – My biggest obstacle was forgiving myself for not making the deadlines I set in 2016 (blog post on this coming soon). I have done that and now I’m in the middle of an online editing class.  Between that and a burst of craziness at work, my dance card is full.  At least I FEEL better about writing. That is a huge step.