Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Easy Creative Writing Tips

People often cite the extreme amount of distractions in their lives that keep them from working on their writing/creative projects. They also like holding fast to excuses that have blocked their creative outlets for years. This article of creative writing tips will provide potential solutions to 20 common distractions or excuses. That way, if you aren't writing, you can say, "I am choosing not to solve these problems," as opposed to blaming the problems themselves. Acceptance is the first step, right? :)

1. My phone keeps ringing with calls or texts.

Turn it off or be dramatic and take out the battery. Believe it or not, the world will go on without you being reachable for a little while. If you don't believe me, test it for ten minutes and see if the Earth is still here. If yes, try to add to that time little by little. If no, wow, you're really important!

2. People keep sending me instant messages.

Exit out of the offending program or uninstall the dang thing. I uninstalled AOL Instant Messenger about two years ago and my life has been much more productive ever since. If you are worried that you will miss a specific person's message, just tell them you'll be busy for an hour doing something cool.

3. My house, café, basement, attic, or street is too noisy.

Write somewhere different? It isn't too hard to find a quiet place if you're willing to leave the problematic area. Local libraries, bookstores or quiet out-of-the-way restaurants work for me when I crave silence. If you need to stay in your noisier place, ear plugs are a cheap solution and noise-cancelling headphones are a bit pricier. And lastly, a bathroom is always a good last resort.

4. I'm too jumpy or jittery to write!!!

Whoa, calm down. First, read my article about quitting coffee :). Secondly, think for a second instead of just giving up on writing. Previously in your life, when you've needed to calm down or relax, what have you done? Read a book? Listened to Frank Sinatra? Laid down for a few? Try what works for you, and then go back to the writing. It will probably be much easier to start.

5. I keep feeling the need to check my e-mail, traffic stats, football scores, etc. on the computer.

Turn it off, unplug it, or leave the house. Challenge yourself to keep it off for as long as you can. Without a computer, how will you write? Go old school and bust out the pad of paper and a pencil.

6. My computer is broken, too slow, or in use.

See pad of paper suggestion in #5. If you must use a computer, ask a friend or search out an Internet Café.

7. My favorite TV show or movie is on.

Turn it off, unplug it, or leave the house. These days, nearly every popular TV show will be online the following day. Also, if you have TiVo or a DVR, the problem is solved. This is your time to write, don't let CBS tell you otherwise. If it's your favorite movie, find a way to record it or buy the DVD. Many of these solutions will involve sacrificing your immediate pleasure for your eventual fulfillment. Believe me when I say this: TV is less important than you.

8. I'm too tired to write.

Get up and go for a walk, do some stretching, eat an apple and some raw almonds. Put on some pump up music and do a little bit of dancing. If none of that works, write standing up. It's tough to fall asleep standing up. Just don't pop a pill or drink a Red Bull. It will work in the short-term and hurt in the long term. Also, evaluate what time of day you are the strongest. Write at that time.

9. I'm too hungry to write.

Take your laptop or paper and pencil out of the house and stop by a good writing café. If you take the time to prepare a five-course meal at home, you may lose the drive to write by the time you have finished stuffing yourself. Let someone do the work for you and write while they're doing it.

10. I have to leave for work in an hour.

Leave now! Get there early and write when you get there. Heck, if you take public transportation, write on the way there. Just because you don't have a lot of time to write, does not mean you shouldn't. Just make a little progress. And by leaving the house, you should eliminate several distractions right there.

11. I have time, but I don't feel motivated.

Surf around this site for twenty minutes! That's what it's for :).

One quick tip: think about how good you'll feel when you have the piece you're working on completed. That is basic law of attraction.

12. I don't know how I'm supposed to do the next chapter, story, passage, or scene.

Just write. Write the first thing that comes to mind. Don't judge it. Just go for it! If you need certain information, collect the research and then write! There is no way you have to do a particular thing, it just needs to be done. So, make it happen.

13. My dog/cat/bird needs to go out for a walk.

Why not bring your dog/cat/bird to a dog/cat/bird park with your trust pad of paper in hand? If not, use taking out your pet as an excuse to leave the house to work. When you come back to the house, just drop your pet off and head to the local café or favorite writing spot. I'm sure he or she will understand :).

14. I told my boss, my friend, my land lady, my spouse, etc. that I would do something for them.

Now you can bust out the old IM, text message, or phone call and tell the person in question that you are unable to work on his or her project. This is not a lie! You have an important project to work on for yourself. If you are motivated, you have an idea, and you have yet to begin, you should get out of your prior engagement.

If it is impossible for you to reschedule, do it. If you can't reschedule it, try to delegate. If you can't do either, put it off for an hour or two and start writing. Your writing is important. The sooner you start conveying that to the people who "request" your time, perhaps you'll find that more writing time happens naturally.

15. I am too overcome by sadness, grief, rage or some other powerful emotion to write.

Perfect! Use it. Being overwhelmed with emotion is a great situation to be in as a writer. There is a lot of raw power you can draw from and draw from it you will.

Try to convince yourself that putting this emotion down on the page will be great for your writing. If that seems impossible, find a friend that will understand your desire to channel your feelings into the written word. We'll call this friend a writing buddy.

I was the writing buddy for my friend Adam during a tough break up. He was devastated. He couldn't eat or sleep, but I forced him to write. The result was a one-man show that is currently being adapted into a full-length film. Putting true feeling into your work can carry you far. Some obstacles aren't obstacles at all.

16. I want to write, I just don't feel like I'm any good.

Prove it. Prove to me that you aren't a good writer. I can show you proof of the chinks in my armor. I received a C in a poetry class, a fiction teacher told me I shouldn't write fiction, and I was mentioned in a newspaper review as saying I had co-written a "lemon" of a script. And yet, I pressed on. Why? How?

I have yet to make my grand contribution. I can feel that there is still something I can write that will mean something or last. Maybe it's this website and maybe it's not. I just know I'm getting closer because I still want to write.

If you want to write, then you should write. If you don't feel like you have any talent but you still want to write, then there must be some reason. If you do not write, you will never find that reason out. If you have yet to test the waters, you might as well jump in. Talent and perceived talent are only a small part of the pie. So I say, dig in, write, and see what happens. You know, before I make another metaphor :).

17. I don't know how to write.

Take your favorite book or play and open to your most earmarked passage or scene. Write something in the style of that scene. With the same characters or your own creations. When you've finished, read it out loud and chance anything that sounds weird. Now repeat the same process with another scene. Keep doing that until you feel comfortable starting from scratch. If interested in non-fiction, do the same with a similar non-fiction work. And then you are a writer. Start putting it on your business cards :).

18. I work so much! There just aren't enough hours in the day.

2 options.

Option 1 - Change one of your jobs into something that will allow you to write. Working in a library or as a receptionist at a less-than-busy office can make this possible. Also, finding something more passive like a website or some kind of investment can free up some time to write.

Option 2 - Sleep less.

I started option two about a year ago and option one a couple of months ago. They both have their positive and negative traits. Option two has been more effective personally, and both work best only if you have strong goals to support them. I know that sacrificing sleep is negative for your health, but I do plan on improving this aspect of my life in the future.

Making time for your writing often requires a sacrifice. What is it gonna be?

19. I don't have any ideas.

There are tons of free creative writing prompts out there on the Internet. Several are at my website if you happen to go there.

20. I have so much to say, I can't get it all out at once!

Start small. Just write a paragraph. Or write an outline. Don't let your wealth of ideas stop you. You have the best kind of problem. Just know that any work takes time.

But if you absolutely need to get it all out, take a day off of work, go to a café and bring a lot of paper :). I once wrote a screenplay in one day because it felt like it needed to come out of my head. Why fight it? Start writing!

Friday, 11 July 2014

How To Managing Employee Writing

The Problem

Enlightened organizations throughout the world are embracing the concept of total quality management (TQM), but at a time when many organizations ask their employees to "do it right the first time to improve productivity" the application of TQM to writing is overlooked. In fact, memos, letters, reports, instructions, proposals, and the many other forms of writing tasks in organizations are not done right the first time. Often, the third or fourth revision is still not "right."

The average professional employee (those with a college degree) spends 10 to 12 hours a week writing documents beyond the time spent on email. According to a survey by Boeing Aircraft, two-thirds of all memos and letters produced by employees and used by managers to make decisions required revision because the original was not clear. Most managers list good writing ability among the top three traits most desired in an employee without realizing that bad writing is a management problem, not an employee problem.

If, as managers believe, an employee who cannot write is a problem, then a good writing training program, of which there are many available to corporations, should fix that problem. It does not. Millions of dollars are spent by organizations on training programs thought to help their college-graduate employees write better. It doesn't work because training employees to write without also training their managers is wasted money.

"Well, I don't agree with that," managers sometimes snap at me when I am hired to consult with them to solve problems they are having with bad writing among their subordinates. They continue, "People with college degrees should be able to write excellently. But I have to rewrite all their stuff because they can't do it right the first time." When a writing project doesn't turn out right the first time blame is focused on the writer, and so begins a series of revision back-and-fourths that cost valuable professional time, and a great deal of money. And irritate managers.

Myths about Writing

There is a mythology in organizations about writing. Here are a few of the more prominent ones:

1. Managers have no responsibility for what is being written between the time they delegate the task and the time they see the result.

2. Part of a manager's role is to edit everything written by subordinates.

3. Everyone should write on a computer.

4. The English rules never change.

5. Engineers can't write.

None of the above myths have any foundation in fact. As for number 5, I hear
the same thing said of computer programmers, geologists, physicists - almost any professional! Nonsense!

Observations about Writing in Organizations

Following are a few observations about the causes of writing failure in organizations gained from12 years as a writing consultant to a Fortune 500 clientele.

1. Employee writing cannot be improved without changing the culture of the organization first. The "culture" of an organization is the sum of all socially transmitted beliefs, myths, and all other products of human work and thought. Culture is passed down from one generation of employees to the next, including the mismanagement of the writing process.

An example of this was the corporation that hired me to improve their proposal writing efforts. Many organizations depend on competitive proposals - bids - to keep their business going. There are both commercial proposals, and proposals for the defense industry. I worked almost exclusively for defense contractors. One Fortune 500 client I worked with had lost 32 bids in a row. Employee strength dropped from 2,000 to 400. I was hired to teach people how to write winning proposals. From the 1960's to the 1980's proposal writing remained about the same, but in the 1980's the style of proposals changed, and the organization wished to change to the new style. They spent thousands of dollars on training. It didn't work because of a guardian of corporate culture, a senior manager, took it upon himself to rewrite every "new" proposal back to the style of the 1960's. The last time I checked, they were still losing.

Another example of the importance of organizational culture was the Space Station proposal to NASA by McDonnell Douglas. A colleague and I were hired for two weeks to train 176 engineers and others how to write well so a nine-volume proposal would sound and look alike throughout. It was apparent within the first hour that the company had no coherent process for managing the writing of the many departments involved. Worse, the strategy for winning the bid that had to be integrated into every section was going to be lost after Volume One because there was no knowledge of what it was below the management level.

On our recommendation, McDonnell Douglas made a courageous decision to change the corporate culture about the way writing was managed, and we spent the next two weeks training 176 people to manage the process. This was 2 years before NASA issued the Request for Proposal (RFP). A year later I was asked to return and to oversee a "trial run." The company took all 176 people off their jobs for two weeks to actually write a mock-up proposal. From that experience, every department and every writer had an opportunity to make the process work. McDonnell Douglas won the bid for $9 billion.

2. Managers do not manage the "process" of writing because they think of writing as an "it." We hear managers say, "I needed it yesterday." or "I need it as soon as possible." They perceive writing as an object.

Problems that arise from the it orientation include 1) shallow insight, 2) compromised thinking and reasoning, 3) lack of logical connections between ideas, 4) abortive or omitted collaboration with others, and 5) time-consuming rewriting and editing by managers to correct the shortcomings that arise from these weaknesses. Writing is a process, and processes need to be managed!

3. True delegation of accountability and ownership rarely occurs. When a manager delegates a writing task with the intention of editing it after it comes back, responsibility and ownership of the work stays with the manager. Many managers believe part of their job is to act as editor-in-chief, and they squander huge amounts of their expensive company time doing the job of secretaries or company editors.

Managers who edit have the illusion that they are doing important and useful work. But their problem is not bad writing from subordinates. It is bad delegation.
When I ask writers in the ranks how writing assignments are delegated to them, this is what I hear:

My manager, on her way out the door, throws stuff on my desk and says, "Take care of this."

My manager believes in progressive revelation. Every time I give him a revision, he reveals more information about the project that I should have had in the first place.

My manager communicates writing assignments on post-it notes.

With managers like these, employees adopt a foxhole mentality. They say

to me, "I just throw some words together and send it in. Why bother making it good. It's just going to be changed anyway." So much for ownership.

4. Managers do not think to negotiate the time it takes to write a document when they delegate the task. A computer programmer asked me how to write faster. "My manager wants me to completely rewrite these 50 pages by Friday. Meantime, I'm supposed to get all my regular work done on time. I'll be working overtime with no pay to get it all done."

When a manager does not consider the amount of time it takes for writing to
get done, writing becomes an unplanned activity sandwiched between ongoing daily duties, meetings, phone calls, email, and a variety of other interruptions. And unplanned activities lower productivity and profitability.

5. Managers are insensitive to the need of writers have for uninterrupted time. Writing is difficult intellectual work. It requires concentration. But interruptions in many organizations are epidemic. They are frequent, uncontrolled, and tolerated.

Overcoming inertia to start writing is hard. Interruptions cause the writer to stop, and afterward, the writer must collect their thoughts, reread what they just wrote, and overcome inertia again. Interruptions can change a 15-minute writing job to a 2-hour marathon of stop-and-start effort.

I was recently working with six managers as they wrote a proposal that was critical to the company's survival. The room was quiet as they were working on how to word their win strategy. A secretary entered the room and interrupted one of the managers with a question about scheduling a not very important meeting. Everyone in the room stopped writing to listen. When the secretary left, the group turned back to their writing. Some began rereading what they had just written. Some stared off into space. Two tinkered with paper clips. Haltingly, they resumed writing. Twenty-five minutes were wasted.

Think of the ramifications for people who work in cubicles!

The Solution

Writing has both an internal and an external manifestation. The internal manifestation is the complex, problem-solving, reiterative process of the writer. The external manifestation is what the manager sees happening. Good managers put steps in place to improve both the internal and external process of writing.

Package the Assignment

Enlightened managers prepare a writing assignment before they delegate. They 1) establish the standards that will be used to review the completed document, and 2) provide the needed tools.

Writers can not read minds. If standards are only in the mind of the manager, the first draft will be changed as the manager applies those standards. Standards are style guides, such as APA or Chicago. English is changing faster now than at any time since the 17th Century, and the "rules," or standards that were taught in the classroom 20 years ago may not apply today. Managers provide writers with tools such as recent-edition dictionaries because meaning, spelling, and technical use of many words is changing. For example, nouns and adjectives are being changed into verbs. A perfect example from an Environmental Impact Statement, "We will tier to the Forest Plan," or "Got milk?"

Some people write better in longhand. Some like laptops, and some like the PC. If a writer does best in longhand, the manager should provide the writer with the ability to translate the longhand to the computer, such as a secretary, or copytalk.com. Secretaries are few and far between in modern organizations as managers increasingly expect their employees to do their own secretarial work. But is there anything more pathetic than watching a professional type on a $10 thousand computer with two fingers? A simple keyboarding course would solve the problem.

A quiet place to work is a tool. One strategy is to set aside "quiet time" one morning or afternoon each week during which noise and interruptions are discouraged. Traffic in hallways and between cubicles is curtailed, phone calls are rerouted to message centers, and visitors are asked to wait or come back later.

Finally, the manager creates an assignment sheet that contains specific directions and standards for the task such as 1) purpose of the assignment, 2) audience, 3) scope, 4) format, and 5) deadline. "I needed it yesterday," and "I need it as soon as possible" are not deadlines. Such evasive directions signal a lack of planning, lack of respect, and lack of knowledge about the writing process. A deadline is a day and a time, "I need it by 8 a.m. Tuesday". A reason helps, "I have a 10 a.m. meeting and I need to look it over before I go."

Touch Base as Writing Progresses

Some writers gather the wrong information because they misunderstand the assignment. Some gather too much, some too little. Some discover information that changes the nature of the assignment, as well as the deadline.

The time to adjust the assignment is before it deviates into unacceptable territory.
A simple phone call, a quick meeting, or a short email can inform the manager of any potential problems; in fact, a verbal exchange of ideas helps both the manager and the employee clarify content, as does a review of brainstorming notes, sketches, or new information.

Teach a Time-Efficient Writing Technique

Writers everywhere say to me, "I have to make the first sentence perfect before I write the second sentence, and the first paragraph perfect before I can write the next one." Ouch! Micro editing as the mind is trying to put thoughts together is a vice. It comes from the micro editing that goes on in school when students try to shorten the time required to write a paper by both writing and editing at the same time. In fact, they are two different tasks. Micro editing appears first in English classes where writing habits are formed, and appears next in department where the manager waits for it to appear and then tears it apart.

Sad to say, but many English teachers, and many managers and employees are stuck in the past. When English teachers give students a writing project, they never teach their students how to get ideas out of their heads and down on paper in an efficient manner. In the 1980's the firm I worked for was the first consultant organization in the United States to teach a rapid writing technique to employees in business, industry, and government organizations. I was one of four consultants traveling 48 weeks a year all over the United States and to some foreign countries to teach people how to write quickly and effectively. When I left, the organization had 60 consultants doing the same thing, which is an indication of the recognized need for more efficient writing in organizations everywhere.

"What makes you think you know anything about how I can write better," is a challenge I heard frequently as I challenged the habits and behaviors of employees and their managers. "I've been writing the same way since seventh grade and it's working just fine." Okay, but during WWII the US Army hired the finest English teachers they could find to come up with a technique they could teach recruits in 6 weeks of basic training that would result in fast, efficient writing. Armies run on writing, and personnel were taking hours to turn out documents that should have taken minutes. The result was a technique for rapid writing and editing that was ignored outside the military until the company I worked for adopted it for organizations in general.

I once taught 2,000 engineers at Northup Aviation a 2-day rapid writing course. It took me one year. Most of them were very receptive, but I heard from class after class the same complaint, "This is all very interesting, but you need to be training my managers because they make me do things their way, not the right way." Corporate culture invalidated the training program because managers thought their employees needed the training, not themselves.

Managers need to recognize that writing problems begin with them, and although they teach their staff members rapid writing and editing techniques, they are part of the problem and need to be part of the solution.

Manage Time-Efficient Editing

English teachers and other engaged in teaching writing fail to teach people a strategy of attack for editing documents. Most people adopt some kind of a strategy, such as the micro editing writer mentioned above. Others concentrate on punctuation, spelling, and grammar because experience has taught them that those things will determine acceptance or failure of their document. They leave everything else virtually untouched.

What is universally forgotten is that reading is a visual process, and that people read a page from left to right and from top to bottom. They start reading at the first sentence of the first paragraph. If they do not find information that is important to them by the second sentence, most of them skip to the first sentence of the second paragraph. If they again cannot find a key idea immediately, most skip to the bottom of the page, or turn the page and try again. I am not talking about fiction writing. I am talking about technical writing.

"Wait a minute," people will say. "I have to put down all the facts before I get to the conclusion. And paragraphs have no less than five sentences." Oh my. There go those pesky seventh-grade teachers again.

With the way people really read a document in mind, it is clear that the most important ideas need to be up and left on the page, at the top of the page, at the beginning of paragraphs, and in headings and other devices that make the key ideas stand out. The body of the text may be technically perfect, but if the main ideas are buried, the writing will fail to communicate with the hurried reader, and people in organizations do not have time on their hands and are not reading for pleasure!

Finally, peer review, if introduced well and managed well, can save a manager time, but the ground rules must be clearly set to protect writers from overzealous critique and irrelevant micro editing. Lastly, managers frequently do not think to provide positive rewards for good writing. Such rewards are energizing, motivating, and encourage writers to continuously improve. A simple "Good job!" can go a very long way to improve morale and productivity.

Summary

When managers pre-package the assignment, delegate carefully, teach their employees how to write and edit quickly and effectively, they have little to do when the documents reach them except sign and send. Writers have ownership and accountability. They take pride in their work.

Writing should be recognized as a process, and managers should be as interested in managing the writing tasks of their employees as they are managing the annual budget. Ineffective writing among employees has to be cured from the top down, not from the bottom up. Bad writing is a management problem, and only management can affect a permanent, workable solution.

Copyright 2007

Dr. Barbara von Diether was a consultant for 12 years for a range of Fortune 500 organizations, as well as many government agencies. She has a Doctor's degree in education administration, a Master's degree in educational technology, and a security clearance. As a consultant for defense industry competitive bid proposals, the companies she assisted won $16 billion in contracts. Currently, she provides editorial services and advisement over the Internet for 1) company and government agency projects, 2) people who are writing non-fiction and fiction books, and 3) students writing theses and dissertations. While in academe, she was President of a State Conference for the American Association of University Professors, and is a former President of her local Rotary Club. She loves horses but has none, keeps her saddle on a stand in her living room, has a daughter who is an attorney, has two grandsons, one a veterinarian, and the other too young to tell, but probably a lawyer, based on his negotiation skills.