This year, we kicked off a “Writing Tip of the Month” from PWN instructors. Here is a roundup of all of our tips conveniently located in one spot for easy reference.
Eileen Whitener, Instructor, Writers Workshop
Read widely and with a writer’s eye. Notice the moment you fall in love with a book. What happened on the page to make you react the way you did? Take note, and see if you can try something similar in your own writing!
Michele Prestininzi, Instructor, KidLit: Picture Books
If you’re feeling stuck, try setting a timer for 20 minutes and do some free writing. Write about anything. Chances are you’ll stumble across a tidbit that will get you started again.
Mimi Cross, Instructor, Songwriting Studio
Regarding reading your work aloud on stage: Professional. Amateur. Published. Beginner. No matter what kind of writer you are, you need feedback. When you read your writing aloud in front of an audience—that’s when you hear what is or isn’t working in your piece.
“Entrainment” refers to the synchronization of organisms to an external perceived rhythm such as music and dance. But when read aloud, stories and poetry can create the same effect. And yes, you can read your writing aloud in your house. You can read it to a mouse. You can read it to your spouse. And you’ll definitely learn something. But it won’t be the same as when you read your piece out in public, in front of a group.
Lisa Hartsgrove, Program Coordinator and Instructor, Just Write
Whether you’ve been writing for years or you’ve just begun, I’m sure you’ve faced the blank page once or twice (or 500 times), unsure of how to begin. Personally, I often struggle with my inner critic—the little voice inside my head that tells me everything I’m writing is horrible, which prevents me from writing anything at all. Here are two ideas that may solve this problem—inner-critic antidotes, if you will:
- Writing Groups. There’s something about being in a group with other writers that is both motivational and inspiring. Hearing other people share their first-draft material makes it less intimidating to write and share your own. Plus, listening to others’ stories often gives me ideas to forge my own original stories. And, not for nothing, being in a writing group holds you accountable!
- The Write-a-Thon, or any writing prompt that is set under a short time limit. Students are given five prompts (typically one or two words each) in 25 minutes, each spaced out in five-minute intervals. They are asked to write anything they think of when they hear each prompt. If they come to an idea they like, they are welcome to skip prompts and focus on their new writing discovery. I love this prompt because I’ve found that for many writers, being under such a quick deadline hushes the inner critic and pushes the creativity forward.
Jennifer Chauhan, PWN Co-Founder, Executive Director, and Instructor, Memoir Writers Studio
A few of my adult memoir students have been going through what they call a writing drought. “I’ve got nothing,” one student said recently. To get unstuck, we are taking advice from memoirist Katie Arnold, who visited with us last week. Arnold talked about how she needed to run before she could write. Rather than putting pressure on ourselves to sit down and immediately get to work tapping away at keys, we need to take time to “warm up” and get ourselves into our creative zone. In class last week, we did some freewriting about what activity helps us relax, opens up our creativity, or feeds our soul. Answers ranged from meditation/yoga to bird watching to anything involving nature. Students were asked to spend time doing those activities before attempting to write.
Allison Tevald, PWN Co-Founder, Program Director, and Instructor, Creative Writing Intensive and Memoir
Lately I’ve been thinking about marking up drafts. Besides circling adverbs (a flag to try to strengthen the verb instead), cliches (a flag to create a less-used quip in the voice of the character), or absolutes like always/never and nothing/everything (because they are almost always untrue), another technique is to ask questions. In the margins of the paper, with my editor hat on and red* pen in hand, I’ll ask my storyteller self: What else does the character want? How does the setting drive the story? Why would the reader care? What are the main themes … and how does this section fit into one of them? You can get a lot of work done pretending to be your own editor before you even share with a group, where you get that invaluable blind-reader feedback. *Such a contentious color!
Jennifer Gaites, Instructor, Short Memoir and Memoir
At Project Write Now, we often use the writing prompt “I Remember …” based on Joe Brainard’s book where each passage begins with the words “I remember.” I am always blown away by what our writers come up with, using these two simple words as an entry into writing. I think that “borrowing” opening words or lines eliminates the pressure of where to begin—of trying to come up with that great first line or scene—and allows us to simply get going (the great opening will come later!). As a result, lately I collect first lines from whatever I am reading. I write down sentences that are striking, funny, or sometimes very simple and use them as prompts for my classes and for myself.
Jennifer Shields, Instructor, Life Stories
The summer is winding down and every hour by the ocean is precious. So, my friends, I will give you an easy out with my writing tip. One word: YouTube. That’s right, YouTube! I have found a treasure trove of author interviews on craft, the writing life, book recommendations, interviews, writer’s panels with the likes of Mary Karr, Martin Amis, and Frank McCourt, talking about their personal approach to writing memoir. Give YouTube a try. Just this morning, I was missing my favorite author, Grace Paley, and thought I might give her a search … and there she was. Her grey billowing hair, giant moon-lensed glasses, and razor wit—all for me in the privacy of my own home while I drank my morning coffee.
Michele Prestininzi, Instructor, KidLit: Picture Books
Now that there’s a chill in the air and the beach tags have been put away, it’s time to get back to your story, but have you lost the thread? I’ve been there, so here’s a tip: Try playing with your pitch instead. Develop a one- or two-sentence logline that encapsulates your story. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder believes in generating this one- or two-sentence grabber first—before drafting a screenplay—and I think he’s onto something for us writers, too. Start with the “who” in your story and give that character an interesting adjective. Add what she’s up against and what’s at stake. (The more primal the stakes, the better.)
Here’s an example from Neil Shusterman’s YA novel Scythe: “When an ethical girl and a compassionate boy are chosen to apprentice to a scythe, it’s a role neither wants. These teens must master the ‘art’ of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.”
This pitch grabs me, and the story stays true to its premise. Give it a try. Play with your pitch until you’re excited to write your story again. It may help you find your thread and keep you focused.
Greg Phelan, PWN Co-Founder, Board Chair, and Instructor, Novel Writing Incubator
Make your story as clear as possible. Suspense doesn’t come from withholding information, but from fully engaging your reader in a complex world where people want things and have challenges getting them.
Nancy Dillon, Lizbeth Arnold, and Greg Phelan, “How to Write a Book: Part II – The Beat Goes On” One-Day Workshop
Although some writers may balk at the idea of outlining your novel (what about the muse!), identifying your story’s plot points may be the structure your novel is missing. Check out the Save the Cat method of writing a screenplay and learn how creating 15 “beats” can help propel your story forward.
Gay Norton Edelman, Instructor, Get Unstuck
A great way to honor your writing process is to play with non-verbal forms of expression—make a collage, mold clay, paint, color, even sing or dance. Other types of creativity can energize your writing, especially if you’re stuck, by slipping your mind away from that stifling inner critic. You may even feel so free you tap into a deep source of material you didn’t know was there.
So there you have it … 12 writing tips just for you and just in time for the holidays, when hopefully you’ll get some quality writing time.
Stay tuned for next year’s monthly column in our WI newsletter!