23
Aug 17

Everyday Writing Outline: How to Keep Daily Writing on Task

If you never outline your writing because you hate Roman numerals, I’ve got an everyday writing outline for you! And best of all, unlike your English teacher, I won’t be grading your final product.

This Everyday Writing Outline will help you with emails or any writing you do for your job!

Original photo by Andrew Neel

I always hated when teachers wanted us to outline our papers in a very specific way, and then they’d grade the outlines. Ultimately, what matters with an outline is that you get your ideas out there. THE FORMAT IS IMMATERIAL. But you try telling that to a middle school English teacher with a chip on her shoulder.

Today, as a teacher, I always encourage my students to outline. You need that road map that an outline provides if you want to get where you’re going. And it’s the best way for you to get your ideas organized. But most people aren’t aware of all the outlining methods available to them. Or, worse — they feel they don’t need an outline since they aren’t doing an academic paper or writing a book.

Well, here’s the thing with my everyday writing outline. There’s no format and anyone can use it.

::the sky opens up, angels sing::

That’s right. If you’ve been avoiding putting your ideas on paper just because you got burned by outlining once, I’ve come to your rescue.

And let’s be real. The sort of writing you do daily doesn’t really necessitate a beast of an outline. Really, you just want to make sure your emails are clear, or that you’ve said everything you need to say in your Facebook event invitation.

Check out this fool-proof everyday writing outline! Click To Tweet

Check out my fool-proof everyday writing outline below, and scroll to the bottom for a free download to help you outline your everyday writing.

The Everyday Writing Outline

Purpose
Think about what you hope to gain overall with the thing you’re writing. Are you trying to persuade or inform? What reaction do you want to get out of your audience? Write all these things down, and let them guide what you have to say.

Audience
Specifically name your main audience. If you’re writing to your boss, you’re going to approach it differently than you would if you were writing for your coworkers or friends. For example, when I write to my boss, I use a fairly simple email greeting that includes a salutation of some kind, and her name. However, when I write to my fellow instructors, it’s not uncommon for me to start the email with “Greetings, Earthlings.” Because we approach different audiences differently, make sure you’ve clarified who you’re writing this for so you approach it with the correct tone.

(Also, yes. I’m ridiculous, and I’m sure my fellow instructors mostly hate me.)

Main Points
Make a quick list of the things you need to cover. I’m notorious for leaving stuff out of emails, which causes me to have to send multiple replies to the same damn email. (Don’t be like Marisa. Be a functional person.) If you’re sending out an email, just make a quick list of things to include. If you’re replying to an email, make a list of all the things you need to reply to. And, to make it easy on your reader, feel free to separate those items into a bulleted list. No one wants to read a big, boxy paragraph. Those are gross.

Facts
Usually, your everyday writing won’t include much research like you did in school. However, you may have to ask questions of others before you’re able to respond. So, think of that as your facts that will back up what you have to say. And, as with a research paper, cite your sources to make it clear to your audience. You don’t have to a do a full-on APA Style citation. It could be as simple as saying “Bob says that we can’t hold the conference in room B on Thursday, but that it’s fine for Friday.” Now you’re recipient knows where the information came from, and is more likely to be satisfied with your answer.

Questions the Audience Will Have
Remember when we talked about writing for an audience? Well, almost all everyday writing has an audience. Because you’re trying to communicate with another person, you want to make sure you’re clear. So, in order to do that, you need to anticipate questions your audience will have. And then see where you can answer those questions within your writing.

Get the free everyday writing outline worksheet here! Click To Tweet

Get Your Everyday Writing Outline Worksheet Here!

It’s simple enough, right? And if you sign up for my newsletter mailing list, you can get a free downloadable worksheet to guide you through my everyday writing outline. Print it out and put it in your cubicle! Save it as your desktop background! Passive-aggressively slide it under the office doors of all the people you work with who write illogical emails! Do what you want with it!

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11
Aug 17

How to Start a Big Writing Project

One of the questions I get all the time is how to start a big writing project. Admittedly, big is a relative term, and means something different to everyone. But whether you’re a middle school student working on a five-paragraph essay or a doctoral candidate trying to crank out that thesis, getting started can be a stumbling block.

Tackling a big writing project can be tough! But I've got 5 tips to help you get through your next big writing project right here.

Original photo by Kari Shea

I feel right here is a good time for me to make a disclaimer.

If you’ve seen me on Twitter, then you know how prone I am to procrastination. There isn’t a week that goes by that I’m not putting something off by looking at all the tweets. So, if you feel that I may need to heed my own advice that I’m about to give, you wouldn’t be wrong.

Do you struggle when it comes to starting a big writing project? Click To Tweet

And while I admit that there is a fair amount of procrastination to my process, there is even more getting down to business. After all, I’ve completed more than one big writing project in my day. Whether it was my master’s thesis or books for ghost writing clients or the syllabus I’m working on now (HOW IS IT AUGUST ALREADY?!), I have a tried-and-true process to get you started on that big writing project that you need to crank out.

001: Minimize distractions.
This is when we close that Twitter tab on our browser. In fact, we shut down the whole browser. We close out everything that isn’t the word processing software we happen to be using. And we put our phone in the other room. And make sure the notifications are off.

I’m not trying to be jerk here, but you can’t write if you’re distracted. There is literally no such thing as multitasking, and if you think you’re succeeding at doing two things at once, you’re really just half-assing those things. (If you’ve got three things going, you’re third-assing. I could go on forever with the fractions.) Multitasking is a great way to make minimal progress on multiple things at the same time. So do yourself a favor and focus in on writing. That will make you get through your task a lot faster, and it won’t seem as daunting.

002: Get in the right headspace.
I know exactly what I need to create the perfect environment for writing. It’s taken me so much time to figure this out, but I’m glad that I finally have. I know I need quiet. I know I need to minimize external stimuli. I know that I need to be as far away from people as possible.

For that reason, I NEVER post up in a coffee shop. In fact, I can barely read in those places. Maybe there is an ideal, quiet coffee shop in an alternate universe that would be perfect for me, but for now, I live in a college town, and every cafe is chock-full of loud-ass students.

When I picked a new place to live, I made sure I found a place that had a space I could use as an office. I know I need the dedicated space to catch all my paper clutter associated with teaching as well as a place where I could sit and do any big writing project that came my way.

I know not everyone can have a dedicated space to work on a big writing project, so you gotta work with what you got. I highly recommend Ambient Mixer to help you tune out the world and get shit done. Invest in some headphones that cancel out other noises. And let everyone around you know that you are not to be disturbed. Because every time you stop to acknowledge a distraction, it takes you that much longer to get back into that headspace, and even longer to get your writing done.

003: Create a road map.
You aren’t going to remember all those brilliant points that you thought about when you originally conceived this project. In fact, if you haven’t written any points down before you begin, congratulations on creating the hardest project of all time. I’m not saying you have to create a full-fledged outline (though, depending on the project, you probably should because it can only help), but you need to know where you’re going.

I used to work with a kitchen manager at this professional wrestling-themed barbecue restaurant in the parking lot of a Walmart (real long story for another time), and every day he’d grab an index card and write out what he needed to do. And with that card that he kept in his front shirt pocket, he never missed a food order or delivery. He kept his crew tight, and the kitchen ran like a well-oiled machine. We’d open the restaurant together, and he’d say, “You can’t get where you’re going if you don’t have a map.” Then he’d flick the corner of that to do list, and go about his day.

I still follow that advice. It’s not uncommon for the screen of my laptop to be surrounded by Post-Its with the nonsensical ramblings of a mad woman. But I need those because they have my ideas, and those ideas are the map.

004: Don’t overestimate your potential output.
If you wouldn’t go to the gym after a long period of inactivity and try to max out your squat, then don’t do it with writing. Sure, you’re probably not going to tear a muscle writing, but your brain and body aren’t used to it, and you’re going to do more damage than good.

Writing is like a muscle. You have to exercise it or lose it. And while I’m not one of those militant writers that believes in working on projects every single day, I do believe that you have to work most days. So, if you’re a student who has spent all summer doing nothing besides eating processed food and watching YouTube videos, you aren’t going to go back to school in the fall and suddenly be able to bash out a 10-page paper in one night.

Writing is like a muscle. You have to exercise it or lose it. Click To Tweet

(You might be able to. But, it’s going to hurt like hell. And you’re setting yourself up for failure. Even if you pass this one paper, know that some professors won’t put up with shitty writing, and at some point, it will come back to bite you in the ass.)

So if you haven’t written in a while, maybe set yourself a small goal. Maybe on the first day, all you do is create that road map for the paper. Then, on the second day, you organize your research and pull the quotes you want to use and create your reference list. Then, you’re already familiar with the topic, and you’re ready to go. Sure, it will require hours of work and revision, but you aren’t overextending yourself in the beginning.

005: Stop tongue kissing boys.
One of the biggest mistakes my students run into is not managing time. No one writes all day long. (I mean, maybe on occasion, but not all day every day.) There’s a lot to life that’s way more fun than drumming your fingers on a keyboard while your eyes stare blankly at a screen. And that stuff will always come before writing if you let it.

When I was an undergrad, a particularly folksy professor of mine asked the class of junior-level creative writers what we were reading for fun. As creative writing majors, we had to take so many writing classes in addition to literature classes, and our nights and weekends were spent catching up on Tolstoy and Milton and Brontë. Surely none of us had time to read for fun too!

Wrong.

As my professor so eloquently put it, “If you got time to be tongue kissin’ boys, you got time to be readin’.”

(I feel I should state for the record that at that time in my life, I couldn’t figure out how to get a boy to tongue kiss me. Also, I had never heard the phrase “tongue kissing” in my life.)

Here's the thing about writing: It's a lot more fun to do other stuff like tongue kissing boys. Click To Tweet

Here’s the thing about a big writing project: It’s a lot more fun to do other stuff like tongue kissing boys. But the writing will still need to be done. So, if you’ve got time to gallivant around town with any ol’ fella who will kiss you, you’ve got time to write. Be honest about how you’re time is spent, and plan out how you will be using your time when you’re in the midst of the big writing project. It will save you so much hurt at the end.

Now let’s say you’ve followed these five tips.

And then what? Well. Okay. Here’s the thing.

You still have to write.

That’s the thing about a big writing project. It’s still a lot of work. But, if you follow these five tips, I promise you that it will become easier for you to complete. That’s not to say that it will be easy. But you’ll learn how to approach a big writing project, and honestly, knowing how to do that is half the writing battle.

 

What about you, fellow writers? How do you attack a big writing project? What are your keys to success? On average, how many hours a week do you spend tongue kissin’ boys?


28
Jul 17

Writing Only Gets Harder

Paradoxically, writing only gets harder the more you do it.

Writing Only Gets Harder

Original photo by rawpixel.com

You can practice for years.

I’ve been actively writing since I was 8, and I can say conclusively that it’s harder to write now than it was then EVEN THOUGH NOW I CAN READ MULTI-SYLLABLE WORDS.

You can dedicate several years of your adult life and thousands of dollars to undergrad and graduate programs, but writing only gets harder.

Don’t believe me? Here’s why:

When you’re a kid, a story is any weird string of words. Have you ever listened to a kid tell a story? They start out telling you that their grandpa is coming over on Friday, and wind up at how much they love pudding. And while those things are probably true, the story itself, sucks.

(Sorry, kids.)

But that doesn’t diminish the kid’s ease at vomiting out words. It’s easy for them.

When I was in the first grade, I wrote books ALL THE TIME. I don’t think any of these tomes still exist to this day, as neither I nor my parents are particularly sentimental. But I sandwiched copy paper between sheets of construction paper, stapled those bad boys, and then went to town with a pencil and crayons. I wrote so many “books.” I was prolific.

It felt so easy.

(Probably because these stories were like 3 words to a page with a very intricate crayon drawing to illustrate the point.)

But then as I grew up, I started learning about story structure. I learned how to construct a sentence for maximum impact. I learned literary conventions and pacing and word choice all played a part in everything I wrote, and I made allowances.

Even so, this wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back. Writing was still pretty easy.

In middle school and high school creative writing classes, we had to turn in a short story once a week. That’s a helluva writing load, one that college classes wouldn’t inflict on their students. But I hit those deadlines. Sure, it was draining, but writing was easier then. I still have some of those stories (they managed to survive the great notebook throwing out of 2017) and they spanned topics like dystopian junkyards, a man going crazy in a grocery store, an unconscious father on life support mentally recounting life events as his family cries in his hospital room, a young girl posing as a squire so that she can become a knight someday…

I wrote all of that and so much more.

And it was really fucking easy compared to the writing I do now.

The ideas are all still there, disparate and diverse.

But writing only gets harder.

The ideas are all still there, disparate and diverse. But writing only gets harder. Click To Tweet

In college, I procrastinated. (In much the way I encourage my college students not to.) I waited until the day before a story was due for workshop, and then I’d bash one out. And, admittedly, it was never the best story in class. But it also wasn’t the worst.

And I could get away with that procrastination, because writing used to be easy.

Now, I can’t crank out a story in an evening. I can’t hear a song lyric and turn it into a plot line. I can’t watch a movie and use big chunks of it for my own craven purposes.

I don’t just sit down and dump my brain on the page the way I used to.

I have better taste now.

(Some of you who are more acquainted with some of my more colorful posts may disagree.)

I can’t write stories about dystopian junkyards, a man going crazy in a grocery store, an unconscious father on life support mentally recounting life events as his family cries in his hospital room, a young girl posing as a squire so that she can become a knight someday because these stories don’t align with what I want from my writing.

It’s not just writing anymore. It’s actually figuring out what I want to say, understanding the consequences and impact this will have, and how it will frame everything else I write from now until I die.

Writing only gets harder.

Sitting in a chair and bashing out words on a keyboard isn’t the hard part.

Sitting in a chair and bashing out words on a keyboard isn't the hard part. Click To Tweet

I’m saying that Writing, with a capital W, gets harder because it’s Writing with a capital W. It’s the bigger picture of what a writer does. It’s being aware of what writing actually means. It’s understanding who will take your words and how they will be used for years to come.

It’s not wanting your name associated with some garbage concept just because it’s popular at the moment or because it came to you or because it was easy to write.

(There are still things that are easy to write. Some things are so easy they’re out of my brain and on the page before I know it. But are they worth it? If you’ve been paying attention, you know they aren’t.)

Writing only gets harder because you know you’re capable of better prose, and pulling it out of yourself is like exorcising demons.

It’s looking back on the words that you put on the page, and making sure they mean exactly what you want.

This is why writing only gets harder.

The more you practice, the worse it gets. That’s what nobody tells you about practice. Sure, it makes it easier to complete the physical task of putting words on paper. But those words? They get harder and harder to bring to the page.

Writing only gets harder. Click To Tweet

11
Jul 17

Writing for an Audience: One Simple Writing Trick That Will Save You Every Time

In all my grading rubrics, there’s a specific percentage of assignment points allotted to the audience. Basically, I want to see how well my students have addressed the concerns their audience has. Because writing for an audience is all about making sure you’ve addressed what your audience needs.

Writing for an Audience

Because if you haven’t addressed the concerns of your audience, why are you writing in the first place?

When you write, think about what your audience wants. Click To Tweet

Have they answered all the questions the reader will ask about the topic? Have they made it clear to the reader what it is they’re trying to say? Are they addressing the reader in the appropriate manner?

These things are hella important when you’re writing for an audience, regardless of who that audience happens to be. And, in my humble opinion, will save you oodles of trouble in the future.

When I write on this blog, I write casually, to be sure. But that’s the proper tone for this place. When I write for work, it’s definitely more formal. And when I write fiction, I adopt whatever tone is necessary for the story I’m trying to tell.

It’s kind of like how you change the tone of your writing when you email your boss vs. when you text your bestie.

But that’s the thing. We’re always writing for an audience.

We're always writing for an audience. Click To Tweet

(Except maybe in journals. But I’m also a megalomaniac, and assume that 100 years from now, historians and scholars will go through my journals — at least the ones I haven’t thrown away — and appraise what I’ve written.)

So, this begs the question. How can you put this into play? How can you ensure your audience is getting what they need from what it is you’re writing?

I’ve got your back, homes.

Writing for an Audience-email

When you write an email, ask yourself what you want to recipient to take away from it.

Are you scheduling an appointment or meeting, or trying to get Bob from accounting to finally respond to your request for funds? Either way, think about how you can make sure your audience gets that from your emails. Because people tend to be inundated with emails:

  • Use bullet points for main ideas, tasks, and action items.
  • Keep it simple. Cutesy detail and jokes gets really annoying when you’re on a deadline.
  • Highlight when you want to emphasize a point.

Writing for an Audience-reports

When you write a report for work, whether it’s a travel/expense/quarterly report, anticipate questions.

In each section of the report, go paragraph by paragraph and ask yourself what questions you anticipate the reader having about what you’ve said.

  • Have you included all the necessary details?
  • Are all requirements of the report being met?
  • Based on past experience, what sort of questions will the audience have regarding your report?
  • If you can’t elaborate on something, is it clear to your reader that you’re working with the only information you have at the time?

Writing for an Audience-directions

When you’re writing directions or a process, think about how your audience will use these directions.

It’s easy to think about a process that you’ve engaged in multiple times, but can you succinctly and concisely explain it to a total noob?

  • Follow each step of your directions TO THE LETTER to see if you’re getting from point A to point B the way you’re supposed to. If you need to, edit to add extra information you may have left out initially.
  • Ask if the information is vital. Cut anything that isn’t 100% relevant to what you’re writing to avoid confusing your audience.
  • Fine an impartial person to test your directions. If they can follow them without any extra information from you, then you’re good to go.

You can pretty much apply any of these strategies to any writing you have to do daily. Take some time to focus on what your audience needs, and that will get you 98% of the way there.

And always, keep in mind that this isn’t Mrs. Palmer’s sixth hour English class. Don’t worry about what Mrs. Palmer would want you to do with your writing. She taught you English writing, which is FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT than the sort of writing you do in the professional/real world. You don’t EVER have to adhere to any rules that she set for you. In fact, I would argue that a lot of English teachers lied to you as you were growing up, and you’re wasting time doing what they said to do.

(They didn’t do this out of spite or for malicious reason. They were just underpaid and trying to wrangle kids to do an assignment when said kids would’ve rather been neckin’ behind the gym. Also, let’s be real. Kids take the DUMBEST things away from lectures, and hold onto them like nuggets of gold, when in fact it’s generally throwaway lines from teachers who just want you to start the assignment at least one day before it’s due.)

Your English teachers lied to you. Stop following their writing advice. Click To Tweet

So what about you? What fool-proof writing trick do you use to make sure your audience gets what you’re saying?


05
Jul 17

Hey Writers! Throw Away Your Old Notebooks.

I used to have a stash of writings that I kept in my closet. I referred to it as “The Warehouse,” because some clever guy in my undergrad creative writing class wrote a meta fiction piece about his warehouse. Basically, he was going through old ideas and writings to pull ideas, like you’d go into a warehouse to find parts.

Hey Writers! Throw Away Your Old Notebooks.

My warehouse was overflowing with notebooks and binders. I had lugged some of those pieces from my parents house to my first place. Then, to Chris’s house when I moved in with him. And back in May, I started to load them in a box again to move them with me to the swingin’ bachelorette pad.

The stash had grown significantly. There were journals full of morning pages, notebooks of to do lists and outlines, planners that showed everything I had done that day, and scraps and bits that didn’t really have a category.

So I looked at the box, overflowing from only half the contents of my writerly stash.

I hadn’t really pulled any ideas from it, not since undergrad, which ended 10 years ago.

Looking at the notebooks, I couldn’t easily say what each one contained. There was no system for storing these. Basically, I finished a notebook and threw it on the shelf. There were countless dog-eared black Moleskines, some about half my age.

And I hadn’t even looked at them since I tossed them on the shelf.

But I had lugged them to new locations.

If I remembered correctly, there was some insanely cringe-inducing things in there. Like the story where I pinched a huge plot point from Dorothy Gilman’s Maze in the Heart of the Castle, but somehow made it about pro wrestling. Or any of my poetry, that was basically like the lovechild of e.e. cummings and The Bouncing Souls. Or just any emotions that were journaled between the ages of 12 and 25. Those were some dark-ass days, y’all.

I felt like I had to pack these up, like I had to keep lugging them, like I had this cross to bear just because I was a writer.

But then I had an even better thought.

What if I just threw them away?

But then I had an even better thought. What if I just threw them away? Click To Tweet

And so I did. I got a big ol’ trash bag and loaded it up with everything that was the writer I used to be. I didn’t think twice. I just did it and tossed it in the big green city-issued dumpster.

It feels oddly freeing, especially since you’d think getting rid of your hoarded ideas would make you feel very sad — like losing the last 45 minutes of work in your Word Document when you think it’s autosaving but it’s not.

But instead, I feel like I’m finally free to be the writer I want to be. Which is weird, because a shelf of notebooks in your closet shouldn’t really dictate who you are, but it kind of does. It’s like being shackled to stories you don’t want to tell anymore.

And now I’m not tied down.

Obviously, this is not for everyone. But maybe let me leave you with this thought that really jolted me into making this decision.

“If I were to die, who would have to clean up this pile of notebooks, and would they read them?”

I knew that it would be my parents, and the answer would most assuredly be yes. (Also, I think they’d pack them up and keep them forever, even though those notebooks were garbage.)

I knew I didn’t want that. So, I threw them away.

And I’m only posting this here because I want to leave my writerly friends with this question. Are you holding onto ideas or the writer you used to be at the expense of new ideas or the writer you going to become?

If I were to die, who would have to clean up this pile of notebooks, and would they read them? Click To Tweet

If so, may I recommend taking a trash bag to your warehouse?