Writing

Expressive Writing: The Key to Learning, Creating & Healing

July 25, 2012

Expressive Writing: The Key to Learning, Healing and CreativityIn Teaching with Writing, Toby Fulwiler presents the findings of a 1981 study of writing in American schools that I believe is still valid today—even in universities and corporate training rooms across the country.

The study found that the majority of assignments involved transactional writing—the kind used to communicate information (as in essays and business letters).

The second most common type of writing was mechanical—the kind used to fill in the blanks, copy information off the blackboard, and take notes. In fact the study found that mechanical writing represented 24% of all classroom activity!

Imaginative writing—the kind used, for example, in writing poetry—came in a distant third and only occurred in English classes.

The fourth kind of writing—expressive—was almost completely absent from the classroom. Expressive writing is the kind of writing we do for ourselves. It is when we write our own thoughts down in order to play with an idea, look at it from different angles, and explore relationships.

In other words, the study concluded that “writing was taught almost exclusively as a means to communicate information rather than as a means to gain insight, develop ideas, or solve problems.”

Why expressive writing is so powerful

Writing to Learn & Create

According to Fulwiler,

Writing is basic to thinking about, and learning, knowledge in all fields.

Expressive writing helps us brainstorm ideas, invent new solutions, and acquire and synthesize knowledge. It helps us discover what we really think and feel about a subject. And it helps us come up with insights that would otherwise have remained unconscious.

James Van Allen expressed this well when he said:

The mere process of writing is one of the most powerful tools we have for clarifying our own thinking. I seldom get to the level of a publishable manuscript without a great deal of self torture and at least three drafts. My desk is littered with rejected attempts as I proceed. But there is a reward. I am never so clear about a matter as when I have just finished writing about it. The writing process itself produces that clarity. Indeed, I often write memoranda to myself solely for the purpose of clearing up my own thinking.

Writing to Heal

Expressive writing can also help us heal. Dr. James Pennebaker, Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Texas in Austin, states that:

Dozens of experiments have now been conducted by researchers in laboratories around the world. Writing about emotional upheavals has been found to improve the physical and mental health of grade-school children and nursing home residents, arthritis sufferers, medical school students, maximum security prisoners, new mothers, and rape victims. Not only are there benefits to health, but writing about emotional topics has been found to reduce anxiety and depression, improve grades in college, and, as we have seen, aid people in securing new jobs.

What this means to you

Because so many of us associate writing with memories of school essays covered with red marks, we would rather do just about anything than put our words down on paper! Yet such reluctance is doing us a great disservice.

Writing for ourselves opens up our brain’s ability to generate ideas, it expands our creativity, and it helps us heal—whether or not we understand what a split infinitive is or where a colon should go!

So sit down in a comfy chair, grab a cup of tea, put on some music and just write. You’ll be glad you did.

Publishing

Words of Wisdom from a Book Designer

June 21, 2012
Jennifer Omner, book designer for self-publishers in Portland, Oregon.

Jennifer Omner, All Publications

A Conversation with Jennifer Omner

I had a wonderful conversation last week with Jennifer Omner, an experienced book designer in Portland, Oregon. Jennifer has owned her company, ALL Publications, since 1994; she not only stays up-to-date with all of the latest technological advances in the publishing industry, but she also has years of experience in design and marketing.

Ebook Sales Are Growing Rapidly

Our conversation became even more relevant to me this morning when I came across some book publishing statistics published by the Association of American Publishers. In the first quarter of 2012, ebook sales ($282.3 million) surpassed those of hardcover book sales ($229.6 million) in the United States.

Paperback book sales ($299.8 million) were still higher than sales in the other two categories, but they were 10.5% lower than in Q1 2011.

Interestingly, sales of downloaded audio books ($25.0 million) jumped by 32.% when compared to Q1 2011, demonstrating the growing popularity of listening to books on smartphones and mobile devices.

Sales of YA/Children’s hardcover books ($187.7 million) went up nearly 67%. And sales of YA/Children’s ebooks ($64.3 million) went up almost 233% compared to Q1 2011!

So clearly ebook publishing is a real and growing trend that writers of all types of book genres need to understand.

What is an ebook?

One of the first questions I asked Jennifer was “What is an ebook, anyway?” I’ve seen everything from a 3-page report to a 200-page manuscript labeled “ebook,” so I was curious about how she would define it. She replied that for her an ebook is “reflowable”; in other words, it is an electronic document that can be adapted to suit the device it’s used on–similar to HTML for website pages. In contrast, a PDF has fixed pages that are not reflowable.

How can you ensure a book succeeds?

No matter what the genre or format, Jennifer said the most important factor in a book’s success is whether or not it tells a good story. After making sure your story is well-told and well-edited, additional steps you can take to help your book succeed include to:

Ensure the cover and interior are professionally designed

“The cover design has a huge effect on sales,” she said, “because people really do judge a book by its cover. It is also important to ensure that a thumbnail of the book cover (as used, for example, to advertise books on Amazon) is attractive and easy to read.”

Jennifer considers numerous small, precise details when designing the interior of a book–even how lines end up at the bottom of each page and how to handle quotations. Many “rules” are precisely defined in The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the bible for the publishing industry. If self-publishers lack this knowledge, they may create books that look unprofessional (and not understand why).

Choose the right fonts

Choosing the right font–both for the interior and for the cover–plays a critical role in a book’s appearance.

“Fonts have an almost subconscious effect on people,” Jennifer said. “The right font for the subject matter will encourage people to pick up a book and read it. The wrong font will make them put it down and move on to the next book.”

Poor design can have serious consequences in other ways, too. Jennifer said that a representative from Chelsea Green, a publisher and book distributor, told her that his company seldom accepts self-published books for distribution because most of them are so poorly designed.

Start with a marketing plan

Another aspect of a successful book has to do with marketing. In fact, Jennifer recommends that authors develop a book marketing plan BEFORE they write their manuscript–whether they hope to publish the book with a traditional publisher or plan to self-publish it themselves. Jennifer said that authors MUST know who the audience is for the book and how they are going to reach their audience and sell their books. The sooner they know this, the better.

What is the process of designing a book?

Jennifer receives a manuscript after her client has finished writing it and it has been professionally edited. She said that many of her clients have spent two to ten years writing their book (!); consequently, they are committed to seeing it in print.

Converting to InDesign

Most manuscripts come to her in Word. She takes this document and converts it to InDesign, a professional publishing software, so she can lay out and design each page. As she does, she chooses the fonts carefully so that they subtly reinforce the book’s message.

Converting to various publishing formats

Once the file is ready, Jennifer converts it into various publishing formats. The correct one to choose depends on whether the book will be published as a hard copy or online as an ebook. Ebooks published in the Apple/iTunes store and at Barnes & Noble require an epub format, whereas ebooks published on Amazon require a mobi format.

Jennifer added that Kindle books render the least amount of code, so the file for them has to be as simple as possible. Once the files are converted, she puts them through a validation test to ensure they are coded without errors.

For all of these reasons, Jennifer said,

“It is not always a good idea to make an ebook look like a print book. They aren’t really the same thing.”

Finding a printer

If authors want hardcover books, Jennifer has several printers that she recommends. In general, she has found that the best printers–with the best prices–are located in the Midwest. Another printing alternative is to use Create Space, Amazon’s print on demand service, which allows authors to print books as they need them. This option is particularly helpful for people who have no idea how many books they can sell.

How much will it cost and how long will it take?

Jennifer estimates that a full-length hard cover book will cost a self-publisher between $5,000 and $10,000. This includes the cost of professional editing, book design, printing and marketing. (Of course, such an estimate has numerous variables.)

Jennifer said it generally takes about a month to design the cover and interior of a book–while working back and forth with the author in making decisions.

Final thoughts

Jennifer cautions authors to question any publishing claims that sound too easy. Producing a high quality book is a collaborative effort that begins with the author and involves the skills and creativity of editors, designers and printers along the way. The final results, however, are worth it.

For More Information

Jennifer produces my favorite enewsletter, which is short, practical and useful. To sign up for it, go to: www.allpublications.com

The blog I read this morning that presented the publishing statistics is located at: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/ebooks-top-hardcover-revenues-in-q1_b53090

If you need professional writing, editing or writing coaching services for nonfiction articles, white papers, ebooks and more, see: www.storymentor.com

 

Writing

Stuck? Try Some Creative Writing Prompts

June 13, 2012

Sign up for free daily writing prompts from Story Mentor

If you are in a dry spell–struggling to come up with ideas for the article you are trying to write, searching for an answer to a problem at work, or muddled in confusion–there is a simple solution:

Creative Writing Prompts!

What?

Creative writing prompts. At heart, these are simply suggestions that get your ideas flowing and your pen moving.

For example:

Creative Writing PromptsThe knock on the door reverberated throughout my house. It woke me from a sound sleep and sent shivers through my body, even though I was sprawled on the couch in front of a roaring fire in the grate. Awash in a feeling of dread, I slowly got up, walked to the door, and opened it: There before me stood…..

Creative Writing PromptsI walked to my favorite cafe, ordered a latte, sat down at a table at the back, and took out my laptop. While waiting impatiently for it to spring to life, I became aware of a young woman sitting alone at a table in the front of the cafe. Her thin, drawn face was silhouetted brightly in the rays of the sun streaming through the window. Although she didn’t appear to be over 25 years old, an air about her was ancient. Intrigued, I turned to my waiting computer and began typing down her “story”: Margaret was….

Creative Writing PromptsI picked up the shell lying half-submerged in the sand. I don’t know why it had attracted my attention because it was just like hundreds of other shells strewn about the beach. Gray, nondescript, common. Yet something about it called to me, and I somehow knew that it had a message for me. As I held the shell up to my ear, a strange voice began “speaking” in my mind: You are…

The Benefits

Writing down our thoughts in response to prompts like these can help us hone in on what is happening around us-the sounds, sights, smells, tastes and feelings that make up our world. They can also help us become more conscious of what is happening inside of us–the messages we are giving ourselves again and again throughout the day.

And they can help us tap into an unlimited source of creativity that can open the doors to new worlds, concepts and solutions.

Such creativity can spill over into our daily lives.

For example, if you are having a hard time coming up with ideas for a speech you need to deliver, why not experiment with the sea shell prompt? Before starting the prompt, set your intention to receive ideas for your speech. Then take a few deep breaths, relax, close your eyes and visualize yourself walking on the beach, picking up the shell, and listening to its message.

 Please share your experiences

I’d love to hear what you discover as you experiment with these ideas, so please share your experiences in the space below.

Clarice

Personal Musings

Using Story to Spark Change

May 18, 2012

Using Story to Spark Personal and Organizational ChangeI’ve been thinking a lot this week about how change actually happens. Using force, threat and fear doesn’t work very well; nor do sincere New Year’s resolutions.

At certain times in our lives, we decide we’ve had enough. We’re going to lose that weight, find a relationship that works, earn what we’re worth.

Similarly, an organization wakes up one day and realizes that it has lost the energy that once attracted streams of new customers or that the market has moved on while its products haven’t.

With great determination, we declare that all will be different going forward.

Unfortunately, it rarely is.

Before long, things quietly return to the same dysfunctional–but oh so comfortable–norm. So if change needs to happen, how can we effect it in a way that permanently transforms us? That makes it impossible to revert to the old norm because we no longer are that person or organization?

I think the answer to these questions is that we have to change our story.

All human beings and organizations tell themselves a story over and over about who they are, what they do, why they do it, what is possible for them. The story for human beings develops during childhood and is greatly influenced by the family, community and culture in which we grow up. The story for organizations develops out of the founders’ personalities, intentions, dreams and experiences when starting their company.

In her wonderful book Storycatcher, Christina Baldwin writes:

Story is the mother of us all. First we wrap our lives in language and then we act on who we say we are. We proceed from the word into the world and make a world based on our stories.

This is why it is so important to change our story if we want to change ourselves.

In Tell to Win, Peter Guber shares the story of the comedian and actor George Lopez. Apparently, Lopez grew up in a poor neighborhood without ever knowing his father and with a mother who was mostly absent. Although he dearly loved the grandmother who raised him, her approach to the world was to take rather than to give.

Many people in such circumstances would have continued into adulthood with the same self-concept and values. Lopez, however, came to a different conclusion. Guber writes:

Suddenly he realized that having a center meant having enough gravity to tell the truth about what he witnessed and also having enough self-regard to try to do the right thing. His reputation might be built on what others witnessed of him, but his character was built on his action when he had no witness other than himself.

As a result of this realization, Lopez consciously decided to change the story he told himself about who he was and what he could become. He also used this new story to write new comedy routines. As a result, he went from being a comic who was mediocre at best to one who was known around the world. Today he is not only financially successful, but he is also a major philanthropist.

One of the clearest examples of corporate change, of course, is how Detroit’s big three automakers went from near bankruptcy to thriving success in just 3 short years. To accomplish this feat, they had to change their self-concept from manufacturers of gas guzzling behemoths of acceptable quality to manufacturers of smart, small, efficient cars of outstanding quality.

In other words, they had to change their story.

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I help businesses and nongovernmental organizations reach more people with their transformational solutions. Click here to learn more about my freelance writing, editing and web design services.

Writing

Sweat, Fear & Prewriting Techniques

April 1, 2012

Have you ever experienced the following?

Avoid Stress: Use Prewriting TechniquesYour boss suddenly asks you to write a post for your company’s blog. The only trick is that the article must be ready today. Hardly stopping to take a breath, you immediately sit down at the computer and begin to type.

Getting Lost in the Swamp

As the hours tick by, your head begins to throb, your stomach contorts into a mass of iron, and rivulets of sweat stream down your back. Your brain feels like you are wandering through a thick fog, struggling to see the path in front of you.

A voice in your head begins to whisper that the post is dead in the water, but you are determined to complete the assignment so you remain glued to your computer.

You begin agonizing over every word until the few ideas flowing through your brain finally peter out, and you realize the point you were trying to make has disappeared altogether. In fact, it feels as though the path you are on has dead-ended into a sulfurous, murky swamp!

What is wrong with this picture? How did you get into such a predicament? What could you have done differently that would have led to more positive results?

Work with your mind, not against it

In The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential, Tony Buzan writes:

Each bit of information entering your brain—every sensation, memory or thought (incorporating every word, number, code, food, fragrance, line, colour, image, beat, note and texture) can be represented as a central sphere from which radiate tens, hundreds, thousands, millions of hooks. Each hook represents an association, and each association has its own infinite array of links and connections. The number of associations you have already ‘used’ may be thought of as your memory, your database, your library.

If this is true, then you embarked on your project working against your brain, instead of with it! If you had allowed your brain to function optimally, you would have given it the chance to make associations before you started writing.

Pre-writing techniques generate a happier scenario

Let’s suppose that you have learned your lesson and decide to work with your brain instead of against it on your next writing project. What will you do differently? How will your experience change?

First Tap Into Your Creative Mind

Example of a Mind MapAs soon as you receive your assignment, you sit down at your desk with a piece of paper and a pen and begin reflecting. You start by putting your overall topic in the center of your paper and drawing a circle around it.

Then you allow the creative, daydreaming part of your brain to make associations and quickly generate ideas–without judging or criticizing them.

As each idea comes, you write it down, draw a circle around it, and connect it with a line to the first circle. To get more ideas, you look at one of your second circles and start brainstorming ideas around it, too.

Then Tap Into Your Logical Mind

Once you have plenty of ideas to work with, you begin analyzing them using the logical part of your brain. You play with your ideas, generate additional thoughts, clarify your points, and move everything around until the story flows well and takes on a logical order.

You’re amazed at how easy it is to see which of your ideas are the most important, which provide support, and which are weak and irrelevant. You even discover new connections, and the key to your whole article suddenly becomes so obvious that you wonder why you hadn’t thought of it before!

In just a few moments, the framework of your argument has become clear.

You know where you want to start, you know your most important points, and you know your conclusion. Once you begin typing, you are amazed at how easy it is to weave your ideas together. In fact, your blog almost writes itself.

Almost magical, isn’t it? Much better than getting bogged down in a confusing, sulfurous swamp!

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Writing

What Technical Writers Can Learn from Shakespeare

March 20, 2012

What Technical Writers Can Learn from ShakespeareOne of my editing clients asked me recently how he could improve his technical writing skills. I told him I would think about it and get back to him with an answer.

Because my client is British and lives in the UK, it was only natural for my thoughts to turn to Shakespeare!

What did Shakespeare know that can help us improve our writing skills? Even if we write prosaic technical prose instead of passionate dramas?

Shakespeare understood the architecture of a story

What do I mean by this?

At the most basic level, EVERY piece of writing requires a beginning, a middle, and an ending. The beginning needs to draw people into your writing and intrigue them enough that they want to keep reading.

The middle needs to tell the basic parts of your story in some kind of logical order so that your readers can follow your ideas easily and understand them without great effort. And the ending needs to tie up loose ends and bring your story to a satisfactory conclusion.

In other words, your writing needs to be well organized!

It should not start with one point, go to another, come back to the first, throw in a couple of new ideas (just because), and repeat itself a few times for good measure. It should start with a major idea…state it clearly, powerfully and succinctly…and then move on to the next logical idea and do the same thing.

Granted, different kinds of writing are built around different kinds of organization, but they all follow a pattern of some kind.

Your goal as a writer is to understand the architecture that your audience expects and follow it.

This leads us naturally to my second major observation:

Shakespeare understood his audience

Shakespeare knew his audience intimately.

The plus for him was that he could hear their shouts of laughter, watch the tears streak down their cheeks, and revel in their applause. On the downside, he could also be pelted with their shoes, rotten apples and groans of derision when they disapproved!

To move his audience, Shakespeare drew on vocabulary, metaphors and themes his listeners understood.

In other words, he didn’t write his plays in French because his audience spoke English. He didn’t use metaphors about the Onandaga Indians in the New World colony of New York because his audience would not have understood them.

He also made sure that each word moved his story further along and painted pictures in the minds of his listeners. To do so, he used concrete details; strong, active verbs; and driving rhythms that added color and energy to his story.

And, of course, he infused his stories with emotion to such an extent that his audiences felt what his characters felt and related their trials, tribulations and triumphs to experiences in their own lives.

What can you learn from this?

You MUST know who your target audience is before you begin to write.

Your audience guides your use of vocabulary, terms and concepts. If they are unlikely to understand an acronym (because they are from Nigeria, not from England) write out all of the words; if they are unlikely to understand a term that is only applicable to the UK, be sure to explain it fully.

It is also important to use clear, succinct, concrete words instead of vague concepts and generalizations. Make sure each word counts; if it doesn’t add anything, eliminate it!

And don’t be afraid to use emotion. What is the nature of the problem you are addressing? How does it affect real people (maybe even you and your family)? What would the consequences be to them if this problem is not resolved adequately?

Shakespeare shows us that the most effective writing:

  • Shows readers how a specific topic relates to them and why they should care about it.
  • Presents the details and events using the type of organization the piece requires.
  • Eliminates unnecessary words and redundant concepts.
  • Uses concrete vocabulary and active verbs that paint pictures in readers’ minds and give energy and rhythm to the story.

What do you think?

What other skills and knowledge did Shakespeare have that can help us improve our ability to write effective technical communications?

Personal Musings

My First Day in Montana (A Mini Memoir)

January 17, 2012

My First Day in Montana: A memoir by Clarice DankersThe cords that so strongly bind my parents, siblings and me to Montana began in 1956 when I was five years old. My father, a university professor and specialist in agricultural economics, was hired to manage a 300,000-acre spread near Three Forks.

Although I cannot remember the details of our move from Carmichael, California, to Montana, I remember the day we arrived at the ranch. My brother, twin sister and I raced from room to room of the two-story home, excitedly counting five bedrooms, four bathrooms, and three fireplaces.

Discovering the cookhouse

After deciding where my bedroom would be, I flew through the back door to explore outside. The first thing I noticed was that all of the buildings, including our house and the barns, were painted white. Directly in front of me was a long, two-story building that contained three apartments for ranch families. To the left sat the bunkhouse, home to fifteen or so cowboys, and to the right—across an expanse of lawn—sat the cookhouse, where the cowboys ate their meals. I crossed the lawn and cautiously opened the creaking screen door of the cookhouse.

The unmistakable odor of freshly baked sweet rolls immediately drew my attention, as did a warm hello from Nina Leffingwell, the full-time cook. In response to my curiosity, Nina toured me through her small apartment, the kitchen, and the dining room, which boasted a low Formica counter that was long enough to feed twenty men at once. Nina said it was time to start preparing dinner, so she handed me a sticky morsel still warm from the oven and shooed me out the door.

Trying my hand at milking

Wandering past the bunkhouse, a dark and mysterious place that was off-limits to girls, I discovered a machine shop where men were busy repairing farm equipment. I felt out of place there, so I headed over to the barn next door. Sam Leffingwell, Nina’s husband, was busy milking two cows attached to stanchions.

Although he must have been at least fifty by then, Sam’s job title was “choreboy.” He motioned me over to try my hand at milking, but it was much harder than it looked. First I struggled to get any milk to come out of the teats at all; when I finally did, it squirted everywhere but into the bucket!

Exploring the horse barns and corrals

I left Sam behind and went to explore another barn. The acrid smell of hay and horse manure hit my nostrils as I stepped into a small barn that consisted of six stalls, each equipped with a hay-filled manger. A sorrel gelding was munching happily in one of them, his black tail moving rhythmically from side to side in a futile effort to dislodge the flies buzzing around his withers. Well-worn leather saddles, blankets and bridles hung from pegs on the outer wall.

In the last barn, I discovered a strange contraption called a “forge.” I later learned that this was where an itinerant farrier and Blackfoot Indian named Bob Hubbard would build a fire that grew so hot it would soften a steel “shoe,” enabling him to hammer it to the exact shape of a horse’s hoof. Connecting all the barns was a patchwork of corrals. I climbed the wooden slats of the nearest fence and watched as a huge bay mare slurped water noisily from a metal trough just below my feet.

The bench and the Madison River

From my perch atop the fence, I looked back toward our house and saw that it was surrounded on two sides by a large grove of cottonwood trees. Beyond the trees, dry, barren hills rose to form a flat mesa called the “bench.” An orchard just north of our house consisted almost entirely of crab apple trees that had been planted (for some unknowable reason) by an early occupant. Beyond the orchard lay alfalfa fields, and beyond those, about two miles from the house, lay the Madison River. On the horizon towered the blue and azure crags of the Rocky Mountains.

Thoughts about cavities

Today I am still a Montana girl. Even though I have lived in Portland, Oregon, for over twenty-five years, Montana holds my heart. It is odd, really. My husband was born and raised in the Netherlands and now feels like a native Oregonian; it is I who feel like a foreigner.

A childhood in Montana formed my soul while her mineral-rich waters formed my body. Because of such water, I have never had a cavity and visits to dentists over the years have been swift and painless. Ironically Montana herself left me with a much larger cavity, one that can only be filled when I cross the border and am greeted again by her incredible skies.