Writing is something that most people learn on the hoof. While you can take writing courses, such as an MFA in Creative Writing or a journalism course, most writers are just born wordsmiths. As such, we can all benefit from books that help us hone our craft. There are hundreds of books about writing, some of which offer formulae for creating best sellers, others that focus on specific elements of writing (such as plot, dialog, or description), and some more general books that provide inspiration.
In this article, I look at a five books about writing that can help every writer.
When you’re staring at a blank page, trying to figure out where to start a project, or where to take the next scene of a novel, you may find that the best way to get your creative mojo back is to take a nap. As counter-productive as it sounds, naps can boost creativity.
Napping isn’t just about resting. Naps reset your brain by sending it through a period of nonrapid eye movement (or N1) sleep. Naps don’t have to be long; even a brief nap can boost your creativity￼, because this “twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness” is where the brain weaves complicated stories. A recent study showed that even 15 seconds of N1 sleep was enough to help participants solve mathematical problems.
I’ve spent much of the morning today doing something I dislike: going over notes on a manuscript I’ve written. It’s a gradual process, examining many small changes, corrections, and suggestions, and it involves integrating the thoughts of someone else – the editor – into mine. In most cases, the editor is right; the suggested changes clarify things. I don’t have to accept them all, but each change makes me re-examine what I’ve written to decide whether I was right, or whether someone else knows better.
So I tried putting this off a bit. I checked my email, scrolled through Twitter, visited a couple of Facebook groups, made tea, fed the cat, and more. I knew that, eventually, this needed to be done, so I got to work.
Humans love stories. They’re how we make sense of the world. Stories present events and actions in a timeline, allowing us to follow cause and effect, and helping us see how different events relate to each other. And as stories progress, we want to know more, we want to know what happens. Who hasn’t stayed up well past their usual bedtime reading a page-turner or watching just one more episode of a TV series on Netflix?
When you launch a business, it’s important to have a compelling story to tell. This wasn’t always the case. Go back a few decades, and all that mattered was having a product or service that was different, but now, the landscape is so saturated that having a good story to tell about your business can help you get noticed, attract investors to take a chance with you, and help build your brand.
While it may not seem like the key to your business, much of what you do revolves around written documents. From your business plan to your website, from press releases to company memos or emails, you write documents to share information and to convince people to buy your products or invest in your company.
Writing these documents is important, and there’s a skill that is essential to crafting efficient documents: outlining. Instead of just starting with a blank page — or window — and writing, it’s extremely useful to take the time to create an outline for your important documents.
Here’s why you should outline before writing business documents.
I became a freelancer back in 1996 to work as a French-English translator. I translated lots of documents, generally working with a printout of the original document on a stand next to my display, and typing my translation on my computer. After finishing draft translations, it was time to edit my documents. To do this, I would generally print them out, sit in a comfortable chair, and read through them making changes with a pencil. You quickly learn that there is a big difference between reading a document on the screen and on paper; when doing the latter, you see lots of mistakes that you gloss over on screen, and you think of different formulations. That process of composing and editing in different contexts allows you to see your work in a different way.
For many years, as a freelance writer, I mostly worked on screen. Occasionally, I would print out articles and edit them on paper, but I have reached a stage where I have enough experience to be able to do all my work on screen. However, that process of editing in a different context can make a difference in my work.
A few weeks ago, I bought a new 11-inch iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil. My goal was to attempt to re-create this writing/editing process using the iPad for the second step. I have found that the combination of the iPad and Apple Pencil allows me to edit in a different context. These two devices together function as a sort of analog/digital hybrid; I get the advantages of working on a digital device and manipulating text more efficiently, together with the analog feel of the Apple Pencil, which I use to select and edit text. I had tried doing this in the past with the iPad’s touch interface, but text selection on iOS is so abysmal that it was too frustrating. The pencil, however, makes this process much smoother.
In addition, I have found that it is actually quite agreeable to control the iPad using the Apple Pencil. Not when I need to type a lot, but even when I do the New York Times crossword puzzle, working with the pencil is much more relaxing than using my fingers.
Scrivener 3 was recently released, and the app is full of useful improvements. With a refreshed interface, Scrivener 3 also boasts a brand new compile feature (this is the part of the app that exports your projects to various formats). It brings styles, as are common in word processors, making it easier to manage formatting in your projects. Outlining is improved, the Corkboard is enhanced, and statistics are available at a glance. If you currently use Scrivener 2, then it’s a must-have upgrade.
One feature I really like is Linguistic Focus. When you’re writing with Scrivener 3, and get near the end of your project, you may want to scan your work to find certain words you’ve used too much, such as adverbs, or you may want to focus just on the dialog if your work is fiction. Scrivener 3 has a useful new Linguistic Focus tool that can help you zero in on certain types of words and texts.
View a document or your entire project (by selecting your Draft or Manuscript folder), click anywhere in the Editor, then choose Edit > Writing Tools > Linguistic Focus (Control-Command-L). In the panel that appears, select a focus, such as nouns, verbs, or adverbs. Scrivener dims text in the Editor that doesn’t match that focus. (Depending on your Editor’s view, you may need to switch to Scrivenings view to display more than one file. To do this, choose View > Scrivenings, or press Command-1.)
If you select Direct Speech, Scrivener dims all text that is not between quotes, so you can scan dialog more easily.
To adjust the dimming of the un-focused text, use the Fade slider at the bottom of the Linguistic Focus panel; if you drag that slider all the way to the right, the un-focused text becomes invisible.
Note that the algorithm for choosing parts of speech is part of macOS and is not perfect, so you may find that certain words are mislabeled when you choose a specific part of speech.
You have finally finished writing your article. You’ve sweat over your choice of words and agonized about the best way to arrange them to effectively get your point across. You comb for errors, and by the time you publish you are absolutely certain that not a single typo survived. But, the first thing your readers notice isn’t your carefully crafted message, it’s the misspelled word in the fourth sentence.
It is infuriating. There is also the Law of Conservation of Typographical Errors. This applies to long works such as books. It states that for every typographical error you correct, another one spawns in the book. I’ve seen it happen.
When you’re proof reading, you are trying to trick your brain into pretending that it’s reading the thing for the first time. Stafford suggests that if you want to catch your own errors, you should try to make your work as unfamiliar as possible. Change the font or background color, or print it out and edit by hand. “Once you’ve learned something in a particular way, it’s hard to see the details without changing the visual form,” he said.
Indeed. When you do that, you see it in a different light. I often use a different font to proofread what I’ve written on my computer. But their are still typos anyway.
Moleskin has launched the Smart Writing Set, which is a combination of a Bluetooth pen, a special notebook, and an app, which lets you write in the notebook and have your writings – and drawings – instantly digitized. The company has created a video explaining how this works.
I’m intrigued by this idea. I know it’s not the first such device, but I would very much like to write more rather than type, and this could be a good way to do so.
I’ve been using the iPad Pro and Pencil recently, and I found an app that has very good handwriting recognition, even with my chicken scratch, but the iPad’s screen is too smooth to write a lot on. Writing is a tactile activity, and I need the friction of a pen or pencil on paper.
I’m tempted by the Moleskine Smart Writing Set, but at £200 – which is a terrible conversion from $200; it should be about £170, including VAT – it’s a steep price to pay for a gadget like this. Also, additional notebooks cost £24, and they only contain 176 page, and they’re only A5 size, which is a bit small.
This is certainly an interesting type of tool, and I hope it becomes more affordable in the future.
But why write blog posts in the first place? Long ago, I thought that an active blog would bring people to Illuminations and that they would then buy our excellent DVDs and perhaps even commission us to make ground-breaking television and other media marvels. I don’t think it has ever worked like that, although I have met a heartening number of people who have read a post or two, and for whom that might have made them think a touch more positively towards us. There is a utility also in simply being a contributor to debate and helping to raise awareness of interesting things, whether this is a season of obscure archive television, a DVD release of an arthouse classic, or an unjustly overlooked book. Mostly, though, I have long thought that maintaining a blog is above all about personal satisfaction, about affirming things for myself that seem intriguing, about trying out notions, and sometimes about having a semi-public space to work things through. So if nothing more it needs to make sense to me, myself and I to find the time and the focus to post.
John Wyver of Illuminations, a video production company specialize in filming documentaries and theater in the UK, shares some thoughts about blogging. His blog is just a small part of his company’s website; the rest is about his productions, and includes a store where you can buy DVDs.
Why do we blog? For me, part of the reason is to promote my brand; I link to articles I’ve written on various websites, and this helps inform a band of faithful readers who enjoy my writings. But some of my articles here exist just because I have things to say, and this is a place to say them. Writing is my full-time job, so writing a couple of articles on my blog doesn’t get in the way of my work; it’s actually part of it. And some of the articles I write are seeds for paid articles I later contribute to various publications.
Everyone has different reasons for blogging; that’s what makes it interesting.