Do you write? Would you like to write? Would you like to write more and better?
A few years ago I took an online writing workshop that taught me how to write more words in less time with no loss in quality. That was huge for this blog: my six-day-a-week schedule was taking far too much time. I couldn’t sustain it. But thanks to that workshop I was able to dramatically cut the time it takes to write this blog.
Johanna Rothman created and leads this workshop. She makes her living in large part through her writing, both non-fiction and fiction. Her non-fiction writing is how I came to encounter Johanna; she writes a great deal about software project management, a topic I care a lot about in my professional life. She’s bright, engaging, and funny. She made this workshop great fun.
This workshop also helps you build a strong writing habit, structure an article that draws readers in and keeps them engaged, edit your own writing effectively, and find ways to get your writing published beyond your own blog.
After the workshop, Johanna will invite you to join a private Internet forum for everyone who’s ever taken this workshop. It’s a place to continue the conversation from the workshop and to share your work and seek feedback.
There’s a fee for the workshop, of course, but I got far more value from it than it cost. If you’d like to write more, and write more engaging and interesting stuff, give Johanna’s workshop a look. She limits the workshop to 12 participants at a time, so if you’re interested, act fast! Check it out here.
A school of thought says to edit (in other words, delete) your photographs ruthlessly. Keep only the ones that represent your best work.
I’ve kept every film image I’ve ever made, including the abject failures. I never know when I’ll change my mind about an image, or thanks to better tools be able to improve one. But even more importantly, I never know when revisiting a bad photograph will reconnect me to a good memory.
I didn’t like this photograph after I made it in 2012. The bright sun washed out some of the roadway behind these machines, and I thought then that it ruined the shot. According to that school of thought, I should have deleted it.
I looked at this photograph again only because I was updating my review of the Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80, which I used to make this photograph. Looking at it anew, I saw much to like. The tones are good. The machines create pleasing intersecting planes, the big arm of that Caterpillar machine adds strength, and each machine offers much detail to study.
I brought it into Photoshop — a tool I didn’t have in 2012 — and toned down the highlights to help that little patch of pavement not shine so hard. It helped a little. You might not even notice it now if I hadn’t pointed it out.
Looking around in that folder I found several forgotten photographs from that roll. By “forgotten,” I mean that I never uploaded them to Flickr. That means I thought then that they were failures. But looking at them again, I’ve changed my mind.
This is one of those photographs. It isn’t going to win any contests, but it’s evenly exposed and, after a judicious crop, balanced in its framing. This is a little tree in the landscaping at Juan Solomon Park in Indianapolis, a place I used to visit often for photography.
I was out on my bicycle that day. (That’s the beauty of a camera the size of a bar of soap. Into a side pocket, onto the bike, off for fun.) I hadn’t yet learned to notice when my shadow was in the frame. Also, bright light from the low sun behind me reflected strongly off my bike’s fenders. I can’t do anything about my shadow but Photoshop toned down those reflections enough.
I enjoyed remembering that early-evening photo ride, especially this portion along that closed street, exploring a nearly finished new bridge. (That’s why I was able to photograph all that heavy equipment in the first photograph above.) It makes me want to do more photo rides when spring comes. I might have lost that memory without this photograph.
As I’ve been celebrating this blog’s tenth anniversary with posts about blogging, a few of you have asked me how to blog more often.
I haven’t always published six days a week. At first I published sporadically, as little as twice a month. In 2010 I committed to three days a week. In 2014 I bumped up to six days a week.
The benefits have been clear: the more often I publish, the more pageviews I get. That’s because frequent publishing makes your blog look more serious to the search engines. And when you publish regularly and write compelling posts, your readers come to look forward to it. You gain regular readers.
But publishing frequently takes time. At present I give this blog as much as ten hours a week. I’d like to produce the same output in no more than six hours. I recently took a nonfiction writing workshop that gave me some solid techniques that should help me get there. But when I started posting six days a week, it took me far more than ten hours a week to deliver the goods. I’ve figured out how to write more in less time.
Here, then, is how I do it.
Write down ideas as they come. You’ll always find two or three sticky notes on my desk filled with blog post ideas. I write down potential titles, which is usually enough for me to remember what I was thinking. When I sit down to write, I have plenty of ideas ready to go.
Brainstorm ideas. Sometimes I make time to imagine a series of posts I might like to write and just think up (and write down) titles.
Set aside specific regular times to write. I write 30 minutes to an hour (almost) every morning over breakfast. I also set aside at least a couple hours on Saturday morning. Writing regularly is important because it helps keep your pump primed. The more you write, the more you have to say. Make a regular writing schedule that you can stick with.
Freewrite in 15-30 minute time boxes. I’ve only recently started practicing this technique, and it is allowing me to write more posts in less time. I’ve always edited as I go, which slows me down, gets me stuck in the word-choice weeds, and blocks the free flow of thinking about my topic. Perfectionism kills creativity and can lead to writer’s block. I start by writing down my high-level ideas about what I want to say, and then I write about each idea without judging the words I type. I allow myself to move sentences, paragraphs, and sections around for better logical flow, but I do not let myself change or rearrange words. If I’m struggling to write, I make myself keep going for 15 minutes and then stop. If I’m able to freewrite easily, I’ll use all 30 minutes. I generally stop at 30, but if I still have time and I know a whole bunch of things I still want to say, I’ll write until either those words or my time are exhausted.
Let unfinished posts stay unfinished until the next time you write. An unfinished post will frequently keep percolating in the back of your mind until you come back to it. I’m astonished by how often I return to an unfinished post I had been struggling to write to find that I now have plenty of good things to say.
When the words come to you, make time to write them down. Sometimes post ideas and the words that go with them just come to me in a flood. I make every effort to set aside a block of time as soon as I can to write them. I love it when this happens, and when it does I can suddenly find myself with a month of posts queued up.
When the well is dry, choose a photograph you took and like and write a paragraph about it. Sometimes you just can’t think of anything to write about. Write about a photograph to prime your pump. If you’re not a photographer, write about a song or a book or a favorite possession. Tell something about it, or what was happening in your life when you photographed it/first heard it/first read it/first got it, or how it makes you feel now. It hardly matters what you write, just write it and publish it.
Edit separately, lightly. After you’ve written a post, set it aside for a while. I often use a future 15-30 minute time box for editing. And I generally edit lightly. This is a blog, not high literature. But my freewriting lets my personality shine through and I hate to edit that away. I start by making sure I like the way the post is organized; if I don’t, I move things around until I’m happy. Then I tweak the words, sentences, and paragraphs to make them flow better.
This is what works for me. Take what works for you from this and leave the rest. But if you try any of this and it works for you, I’d love it if you’d come back to this post and say so in the comments!
This post first appeared three years ago today. WordPress.com included it among that day’s Freshly Pressed posts, which led to the most views ever in one day on this blog: 5,189. That was a tenth of all the views I got all that year! It was a turning point for my little blog, bringing me lots of new readers. Maybe you are one of them.
Blogger Penelope Trunk wrote last year in defense of poor grammar. And then recently she did it again. She claims that it’s better to judge people by their ideas, creativity, and enthusiasm than by how well they write. The implication is that as long as they can get their ideas across, the grammar (and, by extension, punctuation and spelling) isn’t all that important. She goes on to claim that good grammar might actually hold you back in your career!
For several years I made my living as a writer and editor, so obviously I’m going to disagree. But I don’t disagree violently. I rather like some of Penelope’s arguments. She just applies them with a bit too heavy of a hand.
Most of my other authors wrote B- and C-list titles, which meant I got far less time to edit them. Too bad, because none of those authors wrote as well as Pogue. So I developed a hierarchy of editing that let me do the most good with the time I had. My first pass through someone’s text fixed problems of organization and structure, making the text more expository. My second pass fixed problems of logic and fact that would confuse or mislead readers. My third pass fixed errors of syntax and style. My final pass fixed grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. I stopped editing when I ran out of time – and I seldom made it to the final pass.
Let’s be real. If a writer confuses its and it’s or writes sight for site, nobody’s going to misunderstand. And Penelope argues that the goal should be simply to get your ideas across. If I got through just the first two passes in my hierarchy, I made dramatic improvements to the text’s ability to do that. In comparison, grammar, punctuation, and spelling were just window dressing.
Penelope also condemns impeccable grammar as the product of “demented, perfectionist thinking.” As a recovering perfectionist, I can say with some authority that for most tasks, perfection is at best a waste of time and at worst pathological. Anything you do can always be done better, but past some point the effort to make it better isn’t worth the return. Unless you’re disarming a bomb, good enough is just right.
But I can’t go all the way with Penelope and say that grammar doesn’t matter. After all, it gives us the tools to make sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting. I have to think Penelope isn’t opposed to clarity and interestingness, but rather to needless attention to detail.
The trick, then, is in determining the point past which polish doesn’t pay, and that depends entirely on what you’re writing and who will read it. If you’re writing something fast for your friends, like a text message or a quick e-mail, type it, send it, and don’t worry about it. At the other end of the spectrum stands high literature, which deserves your utmost effort – and which, sorry to say, you are probably not writing. For everything in between, make the right reasonable effort to get it right, and then stop. Reread that letter to the editor or proposal to your boss and fix what you find. Hire someone to edit your resume or business plan or any other document that may form your first or only impression. But then if a grammar, punctuation, or spelling mistake slips through, let the brilliance of your ideas outshine it.
I’m rerunning this 2011 post because it didn’t solve the problem the first time. Try, try again.
IN THE COURT OF PEEVES, CROTCHETS, AND IRKS
CAUSE NO. _________________________
JIM GREY Petitioner
ALL ENGLISH-SPEAKING PEOPLE EVERYWHERE Respondent
PETITION FOR INJUNCTION PROHIBITING
MISUSE OF THE WORD “AMAZING”
The Petitioner alleges against the Respondent and states as follows:
That the word “amazing” means “causing a sudden, overwhelming sense of surprise, astonishment, or wonder;” that without all three points of this definition, namely sudden, plus overwhelming, plus surprise/astonishment/wonder, the word amazing cannot apply.
That the Respondent has, in recent years, taken to using the word “amazing” in contexts beyond the word’s originally contemplated meanings:
That although the Respondent may say that their children are amazing, that they routinely fart and belch, and fail to do their homework and receive poor grades, and play too many video games, and text their friends during dinner; indeed, their lives are spent engaged primarily in non-amazing activities.
That the Respondent is known to call church worship services amazing when, in fact, the experiences were merely uplifting or deeply moving. An amazing service would involve God being bodily present, healing leprosy and making the lame walk.
That when the Respondent takes in a sporting event and calls the score, the players, the coach, certain plays, the arena, and even the hot dogs amazing, just as he/she did at the previous sporting event, and the one before that, that such events are therefore common and not amazing.
That the meal the Respondent had at the fine restaurant, or that the Respondent’s mother made at the last major holiday, may have been quite delicious, and may have introduced delightful new flavors to the Respondent’s palate, but remained far from the realm of amazing.
That the Respondent’s last vacation to a distant location may have provided many exciting experiences not available at home. But given that the location has its own problems, such as widespread poverty, confiscatory taxation, a shortage of drinkable water, or a wicked tsumani season, it is inaccurate to call the location amazing.
That when the Respondent, in the execution of his/her duties at his/her place of employment, calls the company’s offered products or services amazing, that this is just marketing puffery intended to mask the problems the Respondent knows to exist in the products or services. Moreover, the rare product that may have initially caused true amazement, such as the iPhone, quickly becomes widely adopted, irreparably harming its ability to amaze.
That Respondent’s overuse and misapplication of the word “amazing” has cheapened the word and rendered it nearly meaningless, causing it severe damage. As such, the word needs the Court’s protection.
Therefore, the Petitioner seeks injunctive relief from the Respondent, requiring them to consider whether synonyms of “amazing” such as “astonishing,” “astounding,” “stupefying,” “awe-inspiring,” or “mind-boggling” could accurately be used instead, and if not, to choose an adjective that accurately describes the event, person, object, or situation.
I affirm under the penalties for perjury that the foregoing representations are true.
It’s Down the Road’s fifth blogiversary!
All month I’m reposting favorite stories from the blog’s early days.
My long career in software development was briefly interrupted in the mid 1990s when I took a job editing technology books. My first project was editing a new edition of one of the publisher’s biggest sellers. I drew this plum assignment not for my l33t editorial skills, but for being the new guy. The author had a reputation for running his editors ragged, and the other editors were glad to scrape this book onto me.
I never understood why, because editing the author’s work was a pleasure. His writing was clear, engaging, and funny. When I made suggestions for improvement, he gladly took most of them. He even called me to discuss and improve on a few of them. He did require a lot of attention, all of it for the good of his book, as he sweated every detail. For example, I spent hours on the phone with him poring over proofs, which are draft printouts of the book after it’s been laid out. It’s the last stage before the book is printed, and he used this time to polish his work further. He sometimes rewrote entire paragraphs to make them funnier (as humor was his book’s hallmark) or reworked graphics to make them clearer, all of which never ceased to thrill the overworked layout department.
When we were done, we had a book to be proud of. I displayed my copy prominently on my bookshelf. It then sold a bazillion copies.
My next assignment was to edit a thick book about a communications technology still popular then. This author handed in cumbersome and clumsy text full of basic writing errors. His humor was lame and sometimes offensive. His technical explanations were usually incorrect and incomplete. I spent hours hammering his work into something marginally usable. He ignored most of my suggestions and avoided taking my calls.
After he had handed in 100 of the book’s 800 pages, he announced that he was done writing. I was incredulous as he explained that the remaining 700 pages would be reprinted (and poorly written) documentation from shareware related to this technology. What laziness! What gall! I accosted the acquisitions editor – that’s the guy who hired this author – and raised an unholy ruckus. I said, “This book will be useful to nobody!” He shrugged. “It’s his book. Is it on schedule?”
I spent the next several weeks with my stomach knotted from anger and disgust as I edited those 700 pages. I pinched my nostrils shut as I sent the chapters to layout. I suppressed my gag reflex as I reviewed the proofs. I rolled my eyes when my copy of the finished book arrived. I hid it in a dusty and forgotten corner of my bookshelf. Then I succeeded for several weeks at forgetting the whole sordid ordeal until I received a letter from somebody who actually bought the book. He wrote something that knocked me out of my chair:
“Dear Sir. I was trying to break into this communications technology when I found your book. I wanted to tell you that it was exactly what I needed. I played with a couple of the programs the book described and, with the book’s help, got one of them running. Thank you for publishing this book. Sincerely, Some Reader.”
I was humbled. No, I was shamed. Mr. High-and-Mighty Editor thought that the author created a steaming pile of feces while giggling at the teller’s window as he cashed his advance check. Yet somebody found the book to be exactly what he needed.
I started to see that maybe I wasn’t the final arbiter of quality, that maybe quality is what meets the customer’s needs. I’ve carried this critical lesson into every job I’ve had since.
But now, many years hence, I have learned another lesson from these two books.
That first book was Macs For Dummies, Third Edition, by David Pogue, a keystone of the juggernaut Dummies franchise. More recently, you might have seen David’s technology column in the New York Times, or his acclaimed The Missing Manual series of books, or maybe the stories he does for CNBC and for CBS News Sunday Morning, or the four-part series he did for NOVA on PBS. David has done very well for himself since his Dummies days. He has worked very hard for it, leveraging every opportunity with his characteristic energy, wit, and grace. He could have gone a long way on those traits alone. But his ability to do top-flight work truly distinguishes him.
I haven’t been very kind to the other author here so I won’t reveal his name or the title of his book, which sold poorly despite the one fan letter. I found his home page on the Web this morning and he seems very happy. But he has not achieved a hundredth of what David Pogue has.
The new lesson? Something modest may meet a customer’s need. But it sure is satisfying – and the hard work sure worth it – when you can really delight the customer. And David Pogue’s case shows that talent and hard work can still really pay off.