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Software vs writer… You have to choose

Spell checkers, grammar checkers and other software tools can be helpful, but they don’t replace the human mind. Eventually you will come to a point where you disagree with your computer; sometimes your computer won’t even agree with itself.

Last week I almost got a 100% score from my ProWritingAid, except for one comma. If I included it, the grammar editor said I was wrong. But, if I removed it the style editor said I was wrong. So, I had to make my own decision (I went with the comma because it fit what I wanted to say).

My wife brought me another example. While writing an email she used the phrase “I want to talk with you,” which her computer flagged and wanted to ‘correct’ to “I want to talk to you.”

With and to are different words with different meanings. When you talk with someone you’re having a conversation. When you talk to someone, that could be a monologue, a lecture, or some other “talking at you” situation. And, those can be two very different things.

Ultimately editing software is useful, but it can’t replace your human writer/editor skills. I recommend finding editing software you like, but I also recommend learning for yourself. English (or whatever your primary writing language is) classes help you understand the rules of the language you’re working in. Foreign language classes can also help you understand those rules…

Literature classes (and just reading on your own) can help you understand how language is used. It’ll also help you see when and how to break those language rules…

Software can tell you what is ‘normally’ correct, or ‘usually’ correct, by the parameters it’s given. But, software doesn’t understand what you’re writing. It doesn’t understand your purpose and meaning. So, while the software helps with the day-to-day grunt-work editing. It can’t make the decisions you do about intent, purpose, and artistry.

Ultimately it’s helpful to use the software, but you have to make your own decisions. You are the writer, and while the software advises it is you who have the final say on what you write.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Choose your words well, and I’ll see you next post.

Yep, still here!

Yes dear reader, I’ve missed a couple weeks on my blogs. Occasionally life gets in the way and this time around it had two conferences, some illnesses, a surprise change of young men’s activities and some wrinkles in my new editing process for backup.

One of the greatest lessons we can learn is that we will have challenges. And, the important part is how we deal with those challenges.

Sometimes things that seem terrible can work out for our benefit. It all depends on how we respond to them.

As you’re reading this, I’ve just crossed the halfway point on this editing pass for Unintended Consequences. I’m also brining a couple other new challenges under control and doing a little good in my corner of the world.

I should be back on schedule next week (at least I hope to be).

Do good in your corner of the world dear reader, and I’ll see you next week.

You need to say it…

Last week we talked about entry points and beginnings, about the need to understand your audience and how to bring them into your writing. This week’s topic is related: you might need to modulate how you say what you have to say, but say it.

Don’t insult your audience

Put consideration into how you say what you say. Language that’s too salty, too uppity, too complicated, or too simple will put barriers between you and your audience. You need to understand how to say what you want to say in a way that’s palatable to the reader.

There are social morays and ways of saying and doing things that need to be considered. Maybe you need to say ‘different’ instead of ‘no’. maybe you need to call before the kids go to bed (or after). Maybe you need to find an indirect way to say what you need to say. And, it’s hard to get any of that right if you don’t know your audience.

The point is, you need to understand how to say what you need to say; that doesn’t mean don’t say it.

Say what you have to say

Something I’ve noticed, something I can show empirically, is that when you (appropriately) come out and say what you intend to say, you get a better response.

Choking, shying away, or writing/speaking in half measures is something your audience can detect. And, when they detect it they will A) draw conclusions about you and what you want, B) recognize you are uncomfortable or lacking confidence, or C) both of the above.

No matter which way it goes, when your audience recognizes this kind of behavior, your position just got weaker; you made it harder for yourself to say what you intend to and get the response you want.

The idea of vaccinations is that you give the recipient a weakened version of something so they can build up a resistance to it. If you’re half stepping in what you say/write you’re doing the same thing to your own words and goals.

If you want to write, or just talk to folks, you need to have the courage to say what you intend, and the knowledge and wisdom to know how to say it. Sometimes you can just lay it out there, and sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you may need to build a case. Sometimes you may need to apply a little patient progress and prepare your reader for what you will say. But, you need to say it.

Say it. If you don’t, it’s your own fault.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind, but figure out how to do so in the right way for your audience. And, I’ll see you next post.

Beginnings and entry points

When I started Johnson Farm (my first published novel) I started with events found in the second half of the story as it reads today. Most my first ideas are in the story’s ending.

My entry point into Unintended Consequences (hopefully my second published novel) was, I thought, in the middle of the book. It turns out my entry point is actually the beginning of the second book in a trilogy.

A similar thing happened yesterday in a real life conversation, I had to help someone ‘catch up’ to where I was in a conversation so I could make my point.

As writers, this is something that happens all the time; the point where we enter a story is seldom correct entry point, the correct beginning, for the reader. And, the same thing happens in many real-life situations.

A customer may walk in wanting to buy a car, but that doesn’t mean she/he is ready to buy the car you want to sell.

You may need to explain to a doctor what symptoms are bothering you before he/she can find a correct course of treatment.

The students in your class probably need a review of previous studies and a transition into how that stuff relates to the current topic before they’re ready to move on to that capstone project about new material.

Understand who you’re talking to…

It’s said in writing classes all the time, “you need to understand your audience.” Well, here’s a practical example. If you want to persuade, or even entertain, you need to understand where your audience is coming from, and then set up the entry point into your story/lesson/sales pitch or whatever else you want to say or write.

If you’re telling a fantasy story, or a science fiction story, or a horror story or… You need to give your reader some idea of what the rules are before you dump things on them. (Not everything at once, but give them a starting point!)

In any story, fiction or non-fiction, you need to give your reader some orientation to where they are or what’s going on; even if that orientation is “Hey! You have no idea where you are or what’s going on!”

Sure, there can be a twist later. Sure, you can turn the tables on someone in a debate. But if you don’t give the reader/watcher/hearer some grounding, you’re not turning the tables or creating a satisfying twist. Without that grounding you’re cheating, or convincing the reader/watcher/hearer you don’t understand what the @!%”$#@$@$!!!! you’re talking about.

And that’s a sure way to make people unhappy. And unhappy people don’t buy books, do stuff you want them to, learn stuff, or share things with their friends.

But, how do I know where the beginning is?

Well, you might not when you start out. Once you have an idea you need to think about who you’re talking/writing to and figure out what the right beginning point is based on your idea and your audience. That might take effort. It might just mean learning about your audience and your idea.

Remember, texts and tweets are about the only place a first draft is acceptable, and even those first drafts can be iffy. It’s a good idea to think before you hit that send button or return key.

Get a little meta. Think about what your purpose is and who you’re talking to, not just your content.

In the last few years I’ve talked to several people about the subject of diabetes. One of the best started with, “So, what do you know about diabetes?’ The single worst started with hand puppets.

The presenter who asked “What do you know?” was coming in at the last minute and was doing an impromptu presentation. The one with hand puppets knew for at least a week that she was doing a continuing education class for a group of mental health and social work folks (most of whom had master’s degrees!).

It doesn’t matter how much time you have to prepare if you don’t think about your audience. If you don’t think about them and start at the wrong place, you will struggle.

It’s the nature of life dear reader. We love our own ideas. We understand our own views and positions better than those of others (If we don’t understand our own, it actively hinders us in understanding other people’s…). But, we can’t just assume that the person we’re talking to is at the same place. We have to find the right beginning for the person we’re trying to communicate with.

Otherwise, there’s a really good chance he/she will be too confused and annoyed to go with us through the whole story, much less to do something more.

Knowing where to begin is a success skill. It creates a foundation on which we build.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Find your beginnings, help others understand what you have to say. And, I’ll see you next post…

Self-Incentivizing

There are lots of reasons to write: money, prestige, getting to tell our stories, and sharing the things we love, among others. But, sometimes these reasons alone aren’t enough of a push.

A book can take a year or more to go to press. It could be months before you hear about that story submission. Royalties can seem small and advances aren’t what they used to be. There are times we feel like tearing our hair out if we have to work on that manuscript one more time. Sometimes having secondary motivators, stuff that’s fairly immediate and close to our non-writing interests, is helpful.

These secondary motivators really can be helpful in getting us over the bumps. While I hate the term retail therapy, I have found there are times it’s helpful to have a tangible reward on my radar. So, I set tangible rewards for making interim goals, step goals, and even the big ones. When I hit the rough spots those tangible things, the rewards I can touch and feel and are so much closer than seeing the book in print, help carry the day. That rough NANOWRIMO in 2017, the one where I set a personal best for words written; it was worth a black powder pistol for my collection.

That short story I keep grumbling is “just a short story”? Yeah, it’s worth $20.00 toward coins, electronics, or some other larger goal item I have in mind. One 500-4,000 word story might not be enough of an achievement for one of the big things I want, but by getting it done and putting a twenty in that lock box, I’m that much closer. It gives me the extra boost I need sometimes, and eventually I’ve earned that whatever it is I want.

My secondary incentives give me plannable, measurable, rewards that can be tied immediately to achieving goals and getting writing done (which is good because the delays associated with some of those primary motivators can be enthusiasm killers).

This week I’m ending with a question: What do you do to reward yourself for writing goals? Leave a comment if you have something that helps you, and I’ll see you next post.

Not as good as an editor, but…

Even the best writer can’t go it entirely alone for editing. The best thing, the most helpful option, is people reading your stuff. The human eye and mind are the best tools for finding things you need to fix, and options and opportunities you missed. But, sometimes no one’s available, or sometimes you want to cleanup and edit before you show your stuff to anyone (I don’t even like to send texts without reading them twice…).

It’s still a good idea to find help…

You really need the help…

Some will try to rely on their own skills and resources. But, to be honest, I’ve met people that can’t get a 144 character ‘tweet’ right on their own. I’ve known good and intelligent people who find a 20 page paper challenging. And, if 20 pages (about 5000 words in double-spaced school writing or 10,000 in single spaced ‘legalese’) is challenging, how hard is it to work your way through a 50,000+ word novel?

At some point you go blind to the annoying little errors (grammar and spelling).

Somewhere else in the text you get wrapped up in the meaning of your thought, and miss those nasty little word substitutions (affect/effect, there/their/they’re, patients/patience…).

Somewhere along the line you miss the fact you ‘yada yadaed’ certain details and explanations that are clear in your mind, but the reader will want spelled out more.

It’s ok… At some point any writer’s brain gets a little overwhelmed with his/her own stuff. You have big ideas. You have passion. You are too busy looking at the forest in its entirety to see that particular tree.

What you need is help to see that stuff…

But, like we’ve already said, sometimes you don’t have the resources available (time, money, favors, people) to have someone read it over, or you really want to go over it and clear up some of those embarrassing little derps before you show it to anyone…

So, we bring in other resources.

Editing software

I’ve already talked about the voice input option in Google Docs, and some oddities of using it. And, I would wager that most of us reading/writing/thinking about this have met the basic tools in Word; Word’s clones; and other popular writing software, apps, and browsers. What we’re talking about here is something bigger and deeper.

After running into problems, and not wanting to let those derps slip through the cracks again, I checked out more heavy duty grammar and style software.

The two that rose to the top of my list were Grammarly and ProWritingAid. In both cases I tested the free version before deciding to spend money on something. Grammarly worked ok… But I wasn’t willing to go farther with it. ProWritingAid worked better for me, and I’ve got a lifetime paid subscription now (before I wrote this… this is not a paid add…).

For the users, fans, and makers of Grammarly, there are still times I recommend it; I think it is probably good for folks that are general purpose/basic writers. But, when I ran the same piece of text through both apps, ProWritingAid better matched my style. And, Grammarly has more of a tendency to be overly fixated, and over regularizes language structures in ways I don’t like (Grammarly’s way of handling commas was annoying, but your mileage may vary…).

In either case, the software helps fix the little stuff, the derps and glitches in style and grammar that are so easy to overlook while you’re focused on the big ideas. It spares you and your readers time and headaches looking for the nasty little typos and allows you to work on story and content.

ProWritingAid and editing a post…

As promised in Words Mean Stuff, here is me editing a post with the help of ProWritingAid. For the record, I use the MS Word add on version.

ribon

But, there is a web browser option too.

I do a couple ‘read and edits’ to get the ideas in place and get the ‘human eye’ stuff largely in line. Then, I turn to the software.

First, I usually get an overall report…

report1

This gives me an overall Idea where things are gives me an idea on where I am with style, grammar, etc. I also like the fact that ProWritingAid gives me an idea of the reading level for the piece.

reading ease

If I’m writing from the POV of a little kid, I like that number to be lower. If I’m writing from the point of view of a professional lawyer who teaches Shakespeare on the side… Well, in that case those numbers might get higher…

Then I go into the style and grammar tools to fix some of the biffs.

style 1

This gives me a list of stuff the software has problems with and suggests fixes. Usually there are some I agree with and follow, and others I don’t. This is one challenge of software versus a real person, the software can’t tell when I misspelled or misused a word on purpose. It will always mark those things as wrong. But, you don’t have to follow what the software tells you. The software will bring up issues; this allows you to leave the ones you make on purpose and helps you fix the ones that really are mistakes.

But, even here the software isn’t as good as a real person. Sometimes fixing a real mistake with just a mouse click creates a new mistake. Omitting a word instead of changing a tense may change the of the sentence. Or just be wrong… You still have to do some reading and thinking for yourself. Otherwise, you’re in the same boat you are with good old spell check and auto-correct… (And we all now how that goes…)

There’s more to say on ProWritingAid (I haven’t even used all the features yet), but this isn’t a full product review (that one’s still coming…). The point for today is: grammar and style software helps you fix the little things, so you can stay focused on the big things, and not look like a dork while you’re doing it.

If Grammarly works great for you, then keep using it. If ProWritingAid serves you better (like me…), then use it. If you find something else you prefer, use that.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Check out some software, and or comment on what you like to use. And, I’ll see you next post!

A Writer’s Instinct…

I was working on another post for today dear reader. I stopped in the middle… Why did I do that? To be honest, I could see I wasn’t creating the quality of post I wanted to. I couldn’t do it in the time I had.

The way the week has gone I haven’t been able to put in the amount of work the post really needs (at the moment I’m wondering if I don’t want to do a shorter post and also offer a  class…). I could see and feel that the post would not be as good as it should have been, and that, even if I had everything ready, to do it properly the post would be much longer than the 750-1000 words I had in mind.

There are times I see and feel things like this when I write. There are times working on a manuscript I think “this isn’t right…” or “I have no idea where I’m going with this”. Sometimes I’m reading over a manuscript I think “Boy, I really ‘yada yada’ed on that part!”

I’ve learned over time I need to pay attention to those feelings.

A whole brain activity…

Writing is a whole brain activity. As a fiction writer I’m drawing on my imagination, I’m pulling stuff out of memory and my subconscious (and according to my friends I’m pulling things out of a few bodily orifices).

Even in non-fiction, it’s more than the brain’s ‘language centers’ and ‘motor control’ that are involved. Your memory is going. Your internal editor is running. If you’re an active writer, you will work on all circuits (and if you’re a serious writer, you may find a part of your mind writing even when you’re supposed to be doing something else).

Because writing is more than just flailing at a keyboard, really getting into your writing can be both rewarding and exhausting. For myself, those days where I’m pulling 3,000+ new words, editing what I did the previous day, and trying to pay attention to an overall story can be downright exhausting. But those are really good days, in the back of my mind I’m living my story. Even when I’m doing non-fiction, on those days I’m “right in there” with things I’m interested in and care about.

Because we can, and do, become focused and “right in there” with the things we’re working on, our conscious mind can really develop tunnel vision. Sometimes when this happens other parts of our mind seem to know something needs to be said differently, that something is missing, or any number of things. It’s sort of like back at grad-school, those of us with offices in the basement navigated around each other even when our minds weren’t on where we were going. When we’re writing, those parts of our minds occasionally get our attention. And we need to pay attention to them.

It’s not something that happens right away…

We didn’t start out with a writer’s instincts. Where do they come from? Reading, writing and reading about writing.

Writer’s instincts are something we learn as we are learning our craft. You pick up some when you’re reading; you see what other writers have done. You apply what you’ve learned while you’re writing; your own work is your practical laboratory. If you’re doing it right, your reading about writing helps you refine your understanding and strengthen your weaknesses. And then it all repeats…

Your instincts about what you’re writing develop just like your vocabulary and your ability to write (both in phraseology and in number of words…). Instincts are simultaneously something that seem to be ‘just there’ and something that results from ‘getting your hands dirty’ with the work.

It can take a while for them to show up, but those instinctive warnings and feelings can really help you in your writing. It’s worth taking the time to develop them. Developing them sometimes means ‘crashing into the walls’ and making mistakes, but that’s part of the learning process. You will not become a writer of any level of merit without it. You will have to learn to take criticism, but that’s part of the process.

Fear of criticism is both something that prevents us from showing our stuff, and thus prevents us from developing, and a useful instinct to develop. I will not let my fear of criticism stop me from saying what I want to say, but I like to know when I will be criticized, and for what, so I can decide if it’s worth it.

Writer’s instincts are something internal to us. Just like our brains, our instincts are unique and develop as we do. I can’t tell you all about your instincts (and you might not entirely ‘get it’ if I try to totally explain mine…). But I can tell you this dear reader, as writers we all have them, and develop them. We also need to learn to pay attention and use them. Sometimes it’s our instincts that help us do the good and creative writing when no one and nothing else can.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Learn to recognize your writer’s instincts. Take them out to dinner and have an honest discussion about why that part of your story feels ‘weird’, ‘not right’, or ‘unfinished’; find out why you’re uncomfortable writing that post. And then figure out how to fix it! And… I’ll see you next

Worth Saying?

It’s been said before, and I’m saying it again… If you’re going to be a writer you need to do three things:

  1. Read
  2. Write
  3. Read about writing

In a book I’ve been reading the author puts a lot of emphasis on having a salable story. It’s a valid question: is your story salable? It can also be an off-putting question.

On the other side of the writer’s pen I find people worried about writer’s block… One cause of “writer’s block” is the false belief you have nothing worth saying. Putting emphasis on a salable story can double down on that stress and fear.

Do I have a saleable story? And, do I have anything worth saying? Are both worthwhile questions, but never mistake them for the same question!

How do you define “worth saying” (or worth writing)?

Salability, a trait marking people’s willingness to pay money for a piece of writing is one way to measure worth, but it’s not the only one.

What about the things we say and write that make someone else feel loved? You might not be looking to be paid for those.

What about words that save a life? You might say or writing those words for a purpose other than the ‘almighty dollar’.

The question “Do I have anything worth saying?” can be properly rephrased as “Do I have anything to say that’s worth the effort I will put into it?”

I hope you have something worth the effort to say.

I also hope you put the effort into your ideas, all the ones you write and say that are worth saying.

What do you want out of what you write? Once you know, you can figure out what to say and make it worth saying. It takes a lot of work sometimes, but it is possible.

What is your purpose in writing? What do you want out of it? What interests you? What drives you? Once you have those answers you can, and will, find that within you and your world that is worth writing.

We all have something unique in our experience and perspective. We all have something worth saying.

We have to find it.

If we want people to read what we write, we also have to work it into something salable (but that’s a different question…).

Salability

Salability is a measure of whether, and how much, someone else will pay for the things we say and write.

Salability is as much about how you present your words and ideas as it is about the ideas themselves

It doesn’t matter how brilliant your idea is if your query letter reads like it should have been written in crayon. You probably aren’t going to be taken seriously as a publisher if you present an unreadable business plan. At the bank, you won’t get your funding if no one believe what you’re saying.

If your story contains more profanity and epithets than anything else highly doubt it will be salable as a children’s book…

Salability is about presentation and audience as much as it is about the idea. That means almost any idea, even a silly one, can be salable if you package it right and present it to the right audience. Remember the fidget spinner? The pet rock? The Tide Pod Challenge? All of those went big!

Salability is a question of research; figure out how to work your idea and who to present it to.

Chances are, if you have an idea worth saying you can make it salable with work (but it can take a lot of work).

If you’re not willing to put in the energy; if you don’t think the idea is worth saying, it will not be salable (at least not by you).

Be careful putting out ideas like that… Someone else may find them; find them worth saying; and then figure out how to really make them salable.

So there it is dear reader, two separate but related questions to get you where you want to go as a writer.

  1. Is it worth saying? If it is, work on that idea! If not, find something that is worth saying. You have something to say, trust me on that.
  2. Is it salable? It can be if it’s worth saying. You just have to figure out how to make it happen.

They’re real and important questions dear reader. And they’re questions every writer needs to ask regularly.

That’s it for this one. See you next post

Who are you talking to?

One side effect of being called as Young Men’s President is that I get to spend a lot more time dealing with young adults. Which is kind of a good thing since I’m working on a young adult novel… it has also gotten me thinking about audience, audience expectations, and telling your audiences apart.

When you get down to it as a Young Men’s President I have at least five audiences I might be speaking to depending on the situation:

  1. The bishop and other leaders
  2. The parents of the boys
  3. The older boys, a 16+ year old dating and driving crowd
  4. A middle group of boys, who have responsibilities and are branching out, but aren’t old enough to drive
  5. A 13 and younger group who are often new to the young men’s program and rarely even get to go to church dances yet

In practice it’s even more complex than that. Some boys are called to be youth leaders and fall into the boy and leader groups. Some adult leaders are also parents. One of those adult leaders is also my wife. And there are things like the special needs some boys happen to have…

So, I have to ask… Who am I talking to?

It’s important to know

Sometimes you get lucky. I know adults who like YA novels.  But, make sure you’re talking to the right audience even when you’re lucky. Not all adults or young adults want a fantasy novel. Some might want a mystery (or both).

Those adults who like YA novels might want more out of a history book that a 9th grader would…

Talking to my parents and 16-year-olds in the same terms might work, but assuming an only child who just turned 12 and the 47-year-old, middle child, father of five have the same experiences will probably get me in trouble.

Figuring out who your audience is helps you know how to get their attention. It helps you figure out what examples to use and how to phrase that call to action.

The initial writing of this post happened at a local restaurant. To one side of me there was a counter culture family and on the other side I found an elderly conservative couple. The conversations at both tables were about the same kinds of things, but they’re using different words. Even though they had some of the same values, they use different words to describe them.

But there were also values that differed.

And those differences can create flash points. There are reasons the woman with the “refugees welcome” tee-shirt might not be happy to see that Immigration officer walking in the door…

And the older gentleman at the next table might greet him as a fellow military vet…

Understanding who you’re talking to, and acting on that information, can make or break an interaction. Understanding your audience and speaking/writing/acting appropriately can determine whether you sell books, get ‘likes’, or end up with spittle in your burger…

If you’re really good, you can bring separate groups together.

If you don’t pay attention, you can create a dumpster fire

So… How do you know what to say?

To quote one of my favorite fictional investigators… “The best way to know about women is to know them.” The same applies to just about any audience dear reader.

With my boys and their parents and leaders it means watching how they interact with each other and interacting with them myself. It means listening to what they say and how they say (or don’t say) it.

It means getting to know their interests, values, and concerns, and how they talk about those things. It might mean checking out a little social media. It might mean doing a little reading (gasp!).

Getting to know your audience might just mean getting out of your shell (gasp again), but if you want people to read your book (or blog or whatever…), buy what you’re selling, get your order right at the burger hut, or get a tip when you’re working at the burger hut understanding your audience: who they are, how they communicate, and what they want, is vital to success.

Sometimes getting to know your audience it hard. It takes effort to get to know people who aren’t like you.

Sometimes getting to know your audience is easy. If you happen to be a widget collector and are writing an article or blog post for widget collectors, you have a leg up already. But you still have to learn your audience and make sure you’re reaching them…

That’s it for this one dear reader. Dinner is done and the teens are texting.

Good luck understanding your audience, and I’ll see you next post.

New adventures… Now if we can just avoid that wrong turn in Mirkwood…

Yes, dear reader, my blog schedule suddenly got a little spotty. About the same time I was asked to lead the young men’s auxiliary for my ward (congregation). It’s something I felt I should do, so I accepted the calling and am the Young Men’s President now; and it’s taking a little doing to get the group organized. I’m also starting some serious edits on a manuscript (a YA novel…), my wife is changing rolls at the university, and life is happening despite it all.

I will get back on schedule and on course with the new stuff on the blog (and continuing the popular content…) I just have to get ten 11-18 year old boys and three other adult leaders heading the right direction as I’m doing it (actually there is one other adult leader, but he’s on the fence about working with the program. And, if I count him I’m no longer sure if I’m Bilbo or Gandalf…).

So I will be back doing the blog soon (hopefully next week!) along with my usual writing and adventures… and some teaching, camping, counseling, and the other things that come with my new duties.

Good luck with your own adventures dear reader, and I’ll see you next post!