Helping Your Writing Shine

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Writers looking for help? Evan Williams to the Rescue!

Evan Williams is at it again. Mr. Williams is sitting in an office here a mile up the road from Twitter, where he is a founder and is still a board member, working on Medium, an amorphous-sounding company that could be one more curio of the Internet age or might end up taking over the world.

So in 2012, he started Medium, a place where stories are made and read. It’s a blogging platform, and anyone can contribute, with writing on all manner of topics. The posts that gain attention, often on Twitter, are displayed prominently and gain more traction as readers and contributors weigh in. The design is responsive, meaning that no matter what you are reading on — phone, tablet or computer — it always looks pretty.

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Write, Right

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There are likely as many “beginning writers” as there are established writers. A few beginning writers hit pay dirt the first time. Many, many others struggle for a protracted time.

In this New York Times “Bookends” piece, two established writers, Anna Holmes and Leslie Johnson answer the important question: “When you started out, was there anything you used to do as a writer you now regret?” Just to whet your appetite:

Anna:

I regret many things, including, but not limited to:

  • Inserting myself into reported narratives where I didn’t belong.

  • Crafting long, complex sentences that I thought made me sound intelligent and sophisticated.

  • Assuming that aggressive, masculine-sounding prose was the ideal style of writing because it was so frequently rewarded in my literature and composition classes.

  • Taking too long to get to the point.

Leslie

When I started writing autobiographical nonfiction, I was mainly using these early slivers of memoir to purge all kinds of guilt and self-loathing and shame. I was writing almost exclusively about the parts of myself I liked least — or the situations I most regretted. These were the aspects of my life that carried the most urgency, and I was convinced that confessing them was the only way to achieve a sense of authenticity — to escape the trap of self-aggrandizement. They were the ragged edges, the loose threads. I wanted to follow them. I felt an urge to articulate every notion or impulse I’d ever had. I thought this would earn my readers’ trust. I wouldn’t make myself look good, and — in this refusal — I would make myself look honest. But it usually turned out more like this: I just made myself utterly unlikable.

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We Write!

Writing Techniques

Here is a question aspiring writers sometimes ask themselves: Who owns the story, the person who lives it or the person who writes it? In her piece, “The Right to Write,” Roxanna Robinson sheds some light on why we write:

Writers are trying to reach some understanding of the world, and we do this by setting down stories. We draw on our own experience, but, since that includes everything we encounter, this means drawing on others’ stories as well. Shakespeare didn’t limit himself to writing about the life of an uneducated actor from Stratford-on-Avon. He felt he had the right to write about anyone – kings, queens, fools, servants, any age and any gender, any background, any race. Many of his stories came from other sources, but he imagined the lives and the minds of these characters so completely that he earned the right to tell their stories.

A writer is like a tuning fork: We respond when we’re struck by something. The thing is to pay attention, to be ready for radical empathy. If we empty ourselves of ourselves we’ll be able to vibrate in synchrony with something deep and powerful. If we’re lucky we’ll transmit a strong pure note, one that isn’t ours, but which passes through us. If we’re lucky, it will be a note that reverberates and expands, one that other people will hear and understand.

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Writer Envy

Writing Techniques

Most writers have a short “pantheon” of well-known writers who they admire. And more often than not, new writers tend to write the kind of books their “heroes” write. They may branch out later, but they typically begin by “writing what they read.”

In this short “Bookends” piece, successful writers Zoe Heller and Daniel Mendelsohn share their favorite writers – with a twist. The subtitle of the piece is: “Whose writing career do you most envy?”

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Blurbs Run Amok

Writing Techniques

Writers want other writers – especially prominent authors – to blurb their books. Blurbs sell books and most writers – especially new authors – crave them. But there is growing evidence the blurb industry had run amok and as the picture here suggests, attempts to pump up sales of books may have reached terrifying heights. Here’s what Jennifer Weiner has to say:

The publishing industry is littered with frequent blurbers. Mr. Shteyngart managed to stand out as an undisputed master of the form. His standards were high. “I look for the following: two covers, one spine, at least 40 pages, ISBN number, title, author’s name. Once those conditions are satisfied, I blurb. And I blurb hard,” he once told a reporter at this paper. Indeed, a Shteyngart blurb was a thing to behold, soaring past quotidian praise to the level of performance art.

For Upamanyu Chatterjee’s “English, August,” Mr. Shteyngart wrote, “Comparing Upamanyu Chatterjee with any other comic novelist is like comparing a big fat cigar with a menthol cigarette.” He called Charles Blackstone’s “Vintage Attraction” “so post-post-modern it’s almost pre-modern.” Of Reif Larsen’s “The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet,” Mr. Shteyngart said, “I felt my brain growing as I read it.”

Writers seeking praise at any price might pause to think again. Read more here in the article “All Blurbed Out

Good Books & Good Writers

Writing Techniques

It’s rare when an accomplished journalist like the New York Times David Brooks is so self-revealing he begins an Op-Ed (in this case, two Op-Eds written earlier this month) with, “I thought I might spend a couple columns recommending eight books that have been pivotal in my life.” These books might change your life too.

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Really Good Books, Part I

Really Good Books, Part II

The Demands of Book Promotion

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Authors James Parker and Anna Holmes debate the merits of book promotion in this Bookends section of the New York Times Sunday Book Review section in their combined piece entitled: “The Demands of Book Promotion: Frivolous or Necessary?” Both writers make good points, but Anna Holmes has, for me, the most compelling argument:

And the readers, really, are where it’s at. There’s nothing more rewarding than taking — or making — opportunities to connect with potential readers face to face or, thanks to the rise of the Internet, pixel to pixel. In fact, I consider book promotion as much of an obligation as proofreading a manuscript. Writing is, in itself, an act of engaging with others, of seeking connection over mere expression. If you were to put a book out into the world, which would you rather have — conversation or silence?

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Writers! Harness Self-Doubt and Make it an Ally!

Writing Techniques

If you are in any kind of creative business you likely ride on the razor edge between hubris and self-doubt. Some call self-doubt, “The Dutch-Elm Disease of Creative Minds.” Mark O’Connell takes a refreshing view of this in his article: “Sorry, Chief, but That’s Not Going to Cut It,” in the New York Times Magazine. He addresses self-doubt head-on

Because if I had to identify a single element that characterizes my life as a writer, a dominant affective note, it would be self-doubt. It is a more-or-less constant presence in everything I do. It is there even as I type these words, in my realization that almost all writers struggle in this way; that the notion of a self-doubting writer is as close to tautology as to make no difference, and that to refer to such a thing as a “struggle” is to concede the game immediately to cliché, to lose on a technicality before you’ve even begun.

Read the entire article here!

Writers Tell Their Secrets

Writing Techniques

Most everyone at least considers writing at some point in their lives. For those of us not as gifted as the Hemingways, Fitzgeralds and Faulkners of this world, sometimes some writing techniques can come in handy. Here is a suggestion from Silas House, author of five novels as well as plays and works of nonfiction:

“To Kill a Mockingbird would certainly have had little effect without the presence of memorable folks like Scout, Jem, Dill, Atticus and Calpurnia. The Outsiders wouldn’t have meant much to me without Ponyboy, Johnny, Cherry Valance and all the others. The Color Purple only took up housekeeping in my heart because of characters like Celie, Shug and Sofia.

Characters are what make us love fiction, what make the stories stick with us and speak to us. Yes, plot and sense of place and action and the language are hugely important. But a novel would be a boring affair indeed without those who populate it.

The point is that I didn’t come to care about Scout or Ponyboy or Celie because of how they looked. I cared about them because I knew what was going on in their minds and hearts. Readers are better informed if we give them what is in a character’s brain, not what is on her body. ”

Read more about writing techniques in Silas House’s article in the New York Times.