BACCA Writers Writing and Publishing

Beta Readers Wanted

After years of research. After running chapter after chapter through the critiques at BACCA Literary. After switching back and forth between Microsoft Word and Scrivener. After all of that the first draft of my narrative nonfiction about John W. Funkhouser, H. Spurgeon Moss, June Allen and the discovery of the earthquake fault running under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant in Louisa County, Virginia is finally finished.

Tentatively entitled Finding Fault, the manuscript is currently in the hands of my Alpha reader and hopefully will soon be in the hands of several Beta readers.

What is an Alpha reader and what is a Beta reader?
According to, an Alpha reader is the first person who reads and provides feedback on the completed manuscript. Alphas are often spouses or close friends — in my case the Alpha reader is my husband.

In contrast, a Beta reader is the author’s first test audience. You might say they are quality control at the earliest stage of the publishing process. Beta readers are not professional editors and usually read manuscripts for free. They aren’t friends or relatives, but they are people who have an interest in the genre or subject matter. They aren’t expected to polish the manuscript, yet they play an important role in helping the author improve her work by pointing out errors, plot holes, inconsistencies, or unclear passages. Often authors give Beta readers a few questions to help them provide feedback on the manuscript.

Here are a few suggestions for a nonfiction manuscript:
Does each scene flow naturally into the next?
Did you feel there were any areas that skipped over information?
What’s your favorite part and why?
Did you have a least favorite part? What is it and why?

K.M. Weiland of the Helping Writers Become Authors website suggests setting ground rules to guide the Beta reader:
1. Be Very Clear on what you are asking your Beta readers to do.
Do you want them to simply read the book over and offer a general opinion at the end such as whether they like or dislike the manuscript?
Do you want them to offer a running commentary on what works and what doesn’t?
Do you want them to note typos?
It is also incumbent upon the author to be clear about their wishes.

Nothing is worse for a Beta reader than spending weeks thoroughly editing a piece only to realize the author was hoping for something more lightweight.

Photo by on

2. How to Mark Suggested Changes
Discuss the best way for the Beta reader to mark suggested changes in your manuscript. Track Changes is a good option as long as both parties have access to Microsoft Word. Another option is to put the manuscript into a Google Doc. Ask the Beta reader what works best for them.

3. Agree on a Reasonable Deadline
This one is important for both the author and the Beta reader. Depending on the length of the manuscript (mine is currently about 70,000 words) and the depth of the edit, Beta reading can represent a significant time investment. Together the author and Beta reader should realistically assess how much time the Beta reader can put into the project. Set a date for the Beta reader to return manuscript with any mark ups or suggestions for the author. Be reasonable and flexible.

Bottom Line: Remember that most Beta readers are doing this because they love reading and are interested in the subject of your manuscript. Thank them for whatever contribution they make to your publishing process.

Photo by Vie Studio on

Interested in being a Beta reader for Finding Fault manuscript? Leave a reply below and I’ll get back to you.

BACCA Writers

Also Look for the Good

In critique, recognizing (and acknowledging) the strengths of a piece of writing might be as necessary as pointing out what needs work. I firmly believe that a truly useful critique has to offer a balance of both encouraging words and helpful suggestions. Tempting as it may be to jump straight into problem-solving mode when approaching another person’s work, openly appreciating what’s working well can have benefits for everyone involved.

In recent weeks, I’ve found myself in a critique situation (outside of BACCA), where, beyond a vague comment or two about beautiful writing, very little mention was made about the good aspects of what I had written. Since the meeting was with freelance clients, this situation left me in a bind. Had nothing I wrote really resonated? I had thoroughly researched my subject. I had spent an extensive amount of time and energy honing voice, tone, themes, and dramatic arcs. I had done the work and delivered it all on time. My clients even seemed positive about my work—in the abstract. When it came to specifics, though, they only spoke of renovation, not preservation.

It wasn’t that anyone present was harsh or mean—not at all. In fact, many of the suggestions they made were fair and all were delivered kindly. Still, the experience felt lopsided. So, I left that meeting feeling disappointed, exhausted, and more than a little confused about my next steps forward. If I had a clearer idea about what parts they appreciated maybe the changes they wanted wouldn’t have seemed like such a daunting task.

While there’s little I can do now about that experience, it did inspire me to compile a list of arguments in favor of looking for the good in a writer’s work. Who knows? Maybe it can help a reader or a writer in the future…

So. Why should we tell a writer what’s working well?

  1. FYI! Positive feedback lets the writer know that something good actually came across. Duh, Noelle. (I know.) But, seriously sometimes the writer doesn’t know for sure if something worked. We have ideas. We have a vision for what we’d like to convey. And, our big plans sometimes fail in the execution. Sometimes, a writer is too close to know for sure.
  2. For the future! Identifying good elements in a manuscript helps a writer hone in on the successful formal strategies they used and maybe increases the chances that they’ll use them again to create more good moments next time.
  3. For selfish reasons! Learning to recognize and articulate the particulars of fine writing helps the person doing the critiquing. At the very least, that person is perfecting important critical skills. If that person is creative, they may also identify something that could make their own work better.
  1. For preservation purposes! Telling a writer which parts of her work you liked means that she will probably keep them in subsequent drafts.
  1. For credibility! Warning: this one may polarize. In my view, if readers can’t come up with at least one positive, concrete comment about my work, I start to distrust their ability to analyze my work altogether. Either they didn’t put in the necessary time, or they don’t have the expertise to really offer a worthy critique, or (worst of all) they have an alternate agenda…usually one that’s based on boosting their own egos. I always think of that kid (we all knew one), who lurked around the classroom, waiting for someone to build a tower out of blocks so she could immediately knock it all to the ground. It’s important for readers to remember that it can take a very long time to build something—and mere seconds to tear it apart. Whatever the root reason might be, I grow suspicious when readers can’t see anything good. And, I usually decide that their opinions aren’t worth worrying about.

Likely, there are a hundred more reasons to let a writer know when she got it right…what do you think? Besides keeping writers off the ledge, are there other good arguments for offering words of encouragement in addition to our thoughtful suggestions in critique?

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, supports local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary groupPhoto by author.

BACCA Writers

The Borg and Me: Inadvertently Learning to Organize my Thoughts

I sometimes tell people that my experience of law school was one of irreversible brain surgery, which inadvertently helped me write better. As much as I resisted, the Borg won out over the course of those three intensive years, and my brain, and life, were permanently changed.

Resistance was futile.
Image from Pixabay.

The process began before I even got accepted. The standardized LSAT (Law School Admission Test) was created to correlate with grades in the first year of law school, to assist school admissions staff in picking likely candidates. The test was heavily skewed toward sequential reasoning, and included two sections of “logical reasoning” tests – sneaky multiple-choice analysis of intricately worded facts and arguments – and another section in “logic games.” You know, when Ruth and Zafir and Consuela and Kelly sit around the table and lie to each other – or do they?

Of the four exam sections, one tested reading comprehension, which I understood. The other three? All about the logic. I crashed and burned when I took a sample test. The intuitive leaps, flights of fancy, and room-reading abilities I had relied on up until that moment failed me.

Brain image from Unsplash

What changed my brain and saved my chances was the random good fortune of getting a teacher in an LSAT prep course who was able somehow to get through to my resistant neurons. That teacher’s skill got my brain to go places it had never visited in its thirty-plus years. As a result I did well on the test, and got into a good school. (Bonus: it was within walking distance from my home.) It took me a few years to admit it, but long before I paid off the loans, I had to acknowledge: I was able to write more and better as a direct product of immersing in all that logic. And there was no going back. My brain was permanently altered.

I do not suggest law school as a method for honing your craft as a writer. For me, the writing benefits were a happy byproduct of a difficult and fraught time. I was surrounded by shark wannabes who seemed to feel right at home snapping at one another and competing for favor. I still remember the smiling young woman in the library who asked if she could “see” a reference book that my study partner and I were using for an assignment. We said sure, assuming she’d bring it right back. We never saw it again. Last I heard, the book poacher had made partner at a big firm.

I think the lesson here, if there is one, is that the skill of sequential thinking can be valuable. If you come by that skill naturally, then you have a tactical advantage. If, like me, you learned early in life how to skate past the need for logic and only later chose to tackle its rigors, then perhaps you share with me an appreciation for something you once dissed or dismissed.

Has this made me into a hardcore outliner, refusing to start writing until I know the architecture of the entire edifice, down to the size, shape, and materials of the cabinet door pulls? Nope. I’m still mostly a pantser, although I did approach #Nano2022 with a general idea of the shape of the manuscript. Planning out extensive writing projects does not come easily to me. I realize, however, that for complex undertakings like books, courses, and big presentations, the ability to plan a logical sequence of ideas, processes, or plot points is nearly essential.

In an odd way, I’m grateful for the events that led me to grasp at least a rudimentary sense of how it is done. Did the Borg win? I like to think we came to terms.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at, and on Amazon. A new journaling handbook is forthcoming.

BACCA Writers

Playing around with Artificial Intelligence

The wonders and threats of Artificial Intelligence have been part of the public imagination since the very first science fiction stories. HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey to DATA on Star Trek: The Next Generation

I had a chance to play around with DALL·E 2, the internet program that creates “original, realistic images and art from a text description. It can combine concepts, attributes, and styles.

DALL·E 2 has learned the relationship between images and the text used to describe them. It uses a process called ‘diffusion,’ which starts with a pattern of random dots and gradually alters that pattern towards an image when it recognizes specific aspects of that image.”

Here’s the link to DALL·E 2 :

Sign up is free.

After you have an account and login

This is what my login page looked like
I asked for an Impressionistic painting of female author writing on a wooden desk in a field of crimson clover with rainbow overhead

I typed in the command “Impressionistic painting of a female author writing on a wooden desk in a field of crimson clover with rainbow overhead”

Here’s what DALL·E 2 produced:

Impressive, eh?


Will A.I. replace artists? Musicians? Can a program write the great American novel? Is any creative endeavor safe from A.I.?

Only time will tell.

A few more of my Dall E creations for your enjoyment.

Dancing honeybees in the style of Renior
Renoir painting of a two-story house by a river and a field of crimson clover.

BACCA Writers

Let Your Heart Be Light

I’m still looking for the sparkle in December this year—the Christmas spirit, the glisten, the glow. Back in July, I anticipated all the shiny parts of the holidays—baking cookies, decorating the tree, piling up silver-papered packages with red velvet bows—with excitement. I forgot, like always, that obligations double or triple this time of year, that the work-rest balance goes awry, and that by the time I get to the doorstep of Christmas, I’m feeling worn out.

Expectations (internal and external) are high—energy and time are low.

It doesn’t help that, for weeks now, my inbox has been flooded with promotional emails warning me that I’ve already waited until the very last minute for gift shopping. It also doesn’t help that here in Virginia, we’ve endured days and days of rain. (A few degrees colder, and we’d have piles of snow!) And, it really doesn’t help that I’m also feeling lackluster about my creative work right now. Rejections and deadlines never take a holiday. Also, it’s time to wrap up one project and start another—a transition I always find difficult to navigate gracefully.

It’s no coincidence that they come together, these dual doldrums. That magic-holiday-feeling that I’m missing is directly connected to my desire to create. So many of the little pleasures of this time of year are creative: singing, decorating, wrapping presents—even coming up with good gift ideas. I can’t expect to do any of these well when my creative reserves are low. But, if I nurture the creative energy, the writing and the merriment should both flow a little better.

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron calls this process “filling the well.” She points out that all of us who want to create “must learn to be self-nourishing,” and to “consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them.” The process isn’t about duty, though, so populating a to-do list might not help. “In filling the well, think magic,” Cameron says. “Think delight. Think fun…think mystery, not mastery.”

I start small at first. Maybe I make something. Anything.

One good line. A cup of tea. A decent lunch.

Then I go outside, even in the rain. Gloomy light is better than no light.

This week, I found:

A glossy-brown leaf that looked like polished wood

A sprig of green moss

A slice of sunlight between banks of gray clouds

I found beauty, in other words. Seeing beauty helps and writing it down helps a little more.

Also, I try small steps forward, but with an attitude of delight. Today, I wrapped one gift as beautifully as I could. Progress.

I’ve landed somewhere between Holly Jolly and Blue this Christmas. I’m okay with it. There’s a song for that, too.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, supports local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group. Photos by author.

BACCA Writers

Resources: Architecture, Purpose, and Commitment

Here are three books that I keep handy. I notice that they come up in conversation, and maybe they’ll be useful to you. See what you think. (And let us know with a comment.)

Architecture with Jane Alison

Image by Reto Scheiwiller from Pixabay

As a writer of fiction, I’m more of a pantser / discovery writer than a plotter, but I think most of us on the looser side of the plotting spectrum do possess a kind of architectural sense. Bigger-picture than plotting, I mean by architecture the overall sense of where a story will begin and end. Or what kind of pursuit – of adventure, understanding, or change – will lead the way, if the end isn’t yet foreseeable.

Author and professor of creative writing Jane Alison has written a book, Meander Spiral Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, about sophisticated kinds of architecture and structural design. At first look, the book intimidated me. I believed myself incapable of understanding her analysis. Now I feel I have been able to comprehend at least some of it. And I admire tremendously her celebration of alternatives to the overwhelmingly favorite structure out in the wild, the “dramatic arc” known to everyone who’s taken an intro to [conventional, western] fiction class.

For those writers whose brains, unlike mine, tend toward the 3-D chess-playing end of the continuum, this is a book you may want to treasure. Alison provides excerpts from many authors’ work to illustrate the ways – beyond Aristotle’s formula for tragic drama – that words can work for a purpose. She calls this collection a “museum of specimens,” drawing on the natural patterns of spirals, meanders, and branches to find them in literature.

“We invoke these patterns to invoke these patterns in our minds…: someone spirals into despair or compartmentalizes emotions, thoughts meander, heartbreak can be so great we feel we’ll explode. … Those natural patterns have inspired visual artists and architects for centuries. Why wouldn’t they form our narratives too?”

~ Jane Alison

Purpose with Brenda Ueland

Image by Chen from Pixabay

BACCA’s own Noelle Beverly has already celebrated Brenda Ueland and her book, If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit (1939). I’m back with more! I find myself citing and quoting Ueland regularly when talking with other writers, including friends, colleagues, and coaching clients.

For one thing, she confidently embraces pantsing.

“You write [the book] and plan it afterwards. … If this is done the book will be alive. I don’t mean that it will be successful. It may be alive to only ten people. But to those ten at least it will be alive. It will speak to them. It will help to free them.” Later in that chapter she adds, “Say it. If it is true to you, it is true. Another truth may take its place later…. If you find what you wrote isn’t true, accept the new truth. Consistency is the horror of the world.”

~ Brenda Ueland

Throughout, Ueland reminds her reader to trust herself. When writing, Ueland says,

“do not try to make somebody believe that you are smarter than you are. What’s the use? You can never be smarter than you are. You try to be and everybody sees through it like glass, and on top of that knows you are lying and putting on airs. (Though remember this:  while your writing can never be brighter, greater than you are, you can hide a shining personality and gift in a cloud of dry, timid writing.)”

~ Brenda Ueland

Brenda Ueland had the confidence to urge her students and readers to build theirs. I find her book a reassuring source of support.

Commitment with Twyla Tharp

Image by Prawny from Pixabay

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life is Twyla Tharp’s handbook for all kinds of creative endeavors. The dancer-choreographer-author intersperses her anecdotes and life lessons with exercises, 32 in total, which appear throughout the book. Each chapter in this conspicuously typeset book is complex and weighty enough to be a book in itself. This is a book to pick up and set down, not to blitz through in one sitting.

In the fourth chapter, called “Harness Your Memory,” Tharp begins by talking about her ongoing efforts to keep her memory sharp, using mental exercises.

“Metaphor is our vocabulary for connecting what we’re experiencing now with what we have experienced before. It’s not only how we express what we remember, it’s how we interpret it – for ourselves and others.”

~ Twyla Tharp

Wow. Tharp then proceeds to discuss kinds of memory, declaring that we remember much more than we think we do – in muscle memory, sensual memory, institutional memory, and ancient memory. The chapter next spins from a pottery fragment of dancers holding hands into the story of how she came to make the 14-minute dance “Westerly Round.”

The Creative Habit is exhausting, if read all at once. Savored and explored, bit by bit, the book is a potent resource. Tharp’s writing is direct, confident, and slightly impatient, as I imagine a conversation with her would feel.

NOTE: This post contains affiliate links to books sold at, which exists to support independent bookstores throughout the US by selling their books online.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at, and on Amazon. A new journaling handbook is forthcoming.

BACCA Writers

Embrace Rejection

Here it is, mid-October, and many young people are struggling with their first semester of college. Struggling an dare I say, panicking. The drop/add deadline has passed. Students are sure they won’t make an ‘A’ in all of their classes. They are terrified that one or two bad grades will ruin their GPA. Will ruin their career. Will ruin their lives….

Photo by Pixabay on

Instead of destroying your health, happiness, and sanity chasing the perfect grade, I suggest you embrace one or two bad grades

– even failures –

They are learning opportunities!

Embrace rejection.

What seems like catastrophe can actually be freeing.

Back when I started college I had the notion that I should become a nurse. Why? I don’t know. There were no nurses in my family, but I figured that’s what women do. They become nurses. As I recall, my older brother told me I wasn’t smart enough to become a doctor so I should become a nurse. (Hey, give him a break, it was the ’70s!)

I had done quite well in high school. Honor roll. Golden tassel. My first summer after graduating from high school, I wanted to get a jump on academics so I took a college statistics class. I passed. More than passed, I got an ‘A’. I liked statistics. I thought it was pretty interesting. I thought “if this is nursing, this is going to be great.” The next semester I took the usual bachelor degree first year classes: English, history, whatever. All A’s.

I struggled with biology. Probably because I don’t have the best memory and never took Latin. But I passed and finished they year with a good GPA.

The next year was hell. I was thrown into hospital situations. I worked with a mentally ill veteran who didn’t act mentally ill until he started talking about being stalked by the Pope. Working the maternity rotation is why I waited until my mid-30s before my son was born. All that screaming! All that yuck!

I watched an experienced nurse insert a urine catheter into a female patient and tell me it was easier on male patients. I never wanted to find out.

I gave shots during my pediatric rotation. I was terrible at it. That poor kid. Traumatized for life, no doubt. And forget drawing blood. I could never draw blood. I was terrible at everything. I even got fussed at while helping a kid brush his teeth. That’s how awkward I was.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

But the final straw – the nail on the coffin, as it were – was when they sent me off to do community nursing. This was before GPS. Before cell phones. I have a terrible sense of direction and I hated those huge road maps they sold at gas stations. They were too big and folded in weird ways. The patient I was sent to visit lived on the other side of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel in Newport News. My task was simple. Drive to her home and check on her status. She was an elderly diabetic with a recent amputation. I was supposed to examine the amputation site and report my findings.

I got lost. Of course. My inner self saying “you don’t want to go there.” Hours later, I finally arrived and the patient tells me that the school had been calling and calling, wondering where I was. I talked to the lady and I never inspected her amputation site. I just ask her how she is doing. She said fine and I left as quickly as I could.

The next day the head of the nursing department called me in to her office. “You don’t have your heart in this, do you?”

“Absolutely not.”

I hated yuck. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fine with dirt but not fine with vomit. Or poop. Or blood. Or puss. I thanked the head of the department and never looked back. I switched majors and ended up a computer programmer.

Now I keep bees and I write and I am eternally grateful to the head of the nursing department for being honest and rejecting me because I didn’t have the courage to say “I’m quitting.”

Image by Pexels from Pixabay
BACCA Writers

Memento Mori: Death as a Tool (For Writers)

Vanitas – Still Life (1625) by Pieter Claesz; Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Death is useful. The knowledge of our own end—and the end of all things—can be a catalyst for action. Writers like to make use of everything. Triumphs and setbacks, blows and banalities—almost all of the detritus of life can be used to make art. Everything is fertilizer and furniture for story. Even death. Maybe, especially death. If we let it help us to live.

The patterns and rituals of the day tend to sweep us along, and life, so much of the time, feels ordinary or even dull. To remind us that our lives are not endless even when they feel like it, we have the memento mori—a symbol that impels us to face death, to acknowledge and accept our mortality. From the Latin, memento mori literally means remember that you must die. Often represented as a skull, the memento mori can be a rendering of anything ephemeral; any image or object that evokes the passage of time can serve the same purpose: a candle, a flower, a sunset, an hourglass.

Time Flies. (Photo by the author.)

The origin of the memento mori has been traced back to ancient Rome. When a triumphant general embarked on a parade of victory, so the story goes, a slave would accompany him all the while whispering, memento mori, remember that you must die. A preventative measure, this was meant to guard against excessive pride so the victorious leader would not begin to believe that he was a god. In the centuries since, zealots and visionaries have used the memento mori, incorporating images of death into their art and sacred spaces, often as a hedge against vanity, greed, or idleness. (For a more thorough treatment of this history, visit here.)

Modern usage of the memento mori is more typically as a driver for action, a gentle reminder that we have a fixed number of minutes to finish a few things while we are here. “Remember, you must die,” then, is only half of the message. The unspoken conclusion, it could be argued, is “…so, remember to live.” In this light, knowledge of our mortality becomes a crowbar, or a portal into a better life. Sam Harris, in a bittersweet meditation entitled “The Last Time You’ll Do Something,” asserts that “everything represents a finite opportunity to savor your life.”

Besides the pen, the memento mori may then be the most transformative and useful tool that a writer can have, serving as a marker for our ultimate deadline—the day we run out of time entirely. Since a death date can’t be marked on a calendar for most of us, the memento mori teaches that death looms in every minute. Every day can and could be our last. So, if there’s something you’d like to try, do, make, write, or be…don’t wait.

Perhaps, as a sensitive and creative person, you are already acutely aware, thanks very much, of the impending doom and gloom. Maybe death is a constant obsession or fear. Maybe every time you face a Boggart, like Molly Weasley, you see a parade of your most cherished loved ones in deep peril. I get it. On a weekly basis, I struggle through that fear of loss, that terror of the unknown. The what-if, wide-awake-at-3-am panic usually leads to a deep sense of loneliness for me, and also inaction. Wheel spinning. Maybe the practice of the memento mori offers an alternative approach. Maybe it asks that we step back and view death from a different angle, one a bit more removed from the harrowing fear that the thought of death usually provokes.

For one, I think the memento mori connects us all as living things. The images themselves, the skull and the hourglass, point to the universal. We are the same at the bone level. We are all at the mercy of time. In that sense, we are not alone. Also, the memento mori is not meant to be a siren, screaming emergency, causing our hearts to bound. It’s more stately than that, a cordial invitation, of sorts, to an inevitable event that we’ll all attend at some point. We are invited to prepare and respond—to channel our gnawing fear into useful action—to survey and then to narrow in on what is most important. To work toward the priority we’ve assigned in our lives and to infuse the time we have with deep meaning and purpose.

Love it or not, the season of the skull is upon us. Halloween looms and visions of skeletons will dance before our eyes. Perhaps this year they can escort us back to the work we most want to do.

Phoebe Bridgers says (sings) it well…

“Baby, it’s Halloween
There’s a last time for everything
Oh, come on, man
We can be anything…”

…don’t miss the full song and video, featuring lovely vintage Halloween costumes, even a skeleton or two.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, supports local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group.

BACCA Writers

Stay Active With Your Online Course Through Regular Writing

For adults who are interested in a topic of their own choosing, starting the online learning process is easy. Enrolling in a course requires almost no effort and we get to choose what we want to learn. Starting assignments—whether they are lectures, discussion boards, or Q&A sessions—can even be exciting as we begin the learning process. Why, then, is it so difficult to keep up our interest and excitement about a course, to actually complete it over time?

Many online learning experiences outside of a college or a university setting may provide a schedule, but lack a detailed structure that tells us how to keep up with the provided timeline. Online learning may also provide limited to no feedback or social interaction. The most popular courses draw hundreds or thousands of students and staff are not able to meaningfully interact with so many enrollees. Instead, adult students are expected to structure their own learning which means figuring out ways to pace themselves and understand their mistakes, all while maintaining enough active engagement and accountability to complete the course.

In this post, I share my recent experience with an online course where I am fully responsible for completing all exercises and assignments. Because there are over 1,000 people in the course, there is no one available to check my work or to interact with, unless I have a technical issue. I decided to journal regularly about the course, to both keep my attention during the course and to remember the important lessons afterwards.

Regular Writing Is a Form of Accountability

For my online nine-month course on the nervous system offered by Sounds True, I created a simple GoogleDoc.

Excerpt from the author’s course notes

New entries are dated and appear at the top. After listening to a lecture or doing one of the exercises, I write about the ideas and my thoughts or reactions. Each person is different as to how to make this type of accountability work best for them. If you are motivated and have the time, a daily written reflection might be appropriate. For myself, with a six-year-old with special needs and limited child care, I aim for two to four times per week. If I write only once per week, or skip a week if things are very hectic, that’s okay. What’s important is regularly writing as a way of revisiting the ideas in the online course. This process can create what’s called a distributed practice schedule, which research suggests improves long-term learning 15% over reviewing only once, which includes cramming (also known as massed practice).

Writing in Our Own Words is a Deep (Not Surface) Way of Processing Information

When we transform ideas we have listened to or read into our own words, we have to do what is called deep processing. Reproducing a verbatim transcript takes only superficial processing—mainly listening, comprehension of word order, and typing those words. When we think about the ideas, comprehend them and then use our own words to restate the ideas in a way that has meaning to us, this activates more areas in our brains than surface processing, and builds new neural connections. Because of these changes, deep processing makes the information we have transformed more memorable.

Making It Personal Makes It Memorable

Expanding this idea of deep processing is the principle of making our learning personal. When I use my own words, I don’t just rephrase the words the course instructor is using.

Vivid memory in Mt. Pleasant, MI. Photo by the author.

I link ideas to my own personal knowledge and experiences—including emotional responses like feelings or body sensations, or vivid memories of something being rewarding, painful, or funny. Information that has emotional relevance to us and our lives builds very strong neural connections that make learning more permanent.

BACCA Writer Emerita Claire E. Cameron is Associate Professor and director of the Early Childhood & Childhood EdM and PhD programs in the Department of Learning and Instruction at the University at Buffalo (SUNY). Claire studies how children develop “learning to learn” and school readiness skills like managing their attention and behavior and successfully navigating learning environments. In her creative non-fiction, she further explores individual stories of growth and change on the way toward well-being. Claire believes that great wisdom can be unearthed when we explore the things that we’re often taught to keep hidden, and that telling our stories helps us find our place in the world. Visit Claire’s website for more information.

BACCA Writers

Resources: Critiquing, Simplifying, and Ending ~ Plus Some Hope

Here are some of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen, bundled together as summer bounty for writers in the Northern Hemisphere. Are you planning on taking time off? Hard at work? Both? See what works for you here:

Beginners Mind

Start simple.
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

BACCA’s own Noelle Beverly put this evergreen blog post together a while ago for our website, after working on an internal document for our critique group. I notice that I keep sharing the link with other writers! Noelle’s apparently simple approach to critiquing the written work of another is powerful.

I begin with this: everything is intentional. I assume the writer has something in mind and figuring that out is my first job.
~ Noelle Beverly

Noelle has given us invaluable, humility-inducing advice and I recommend it to your attention. Take in this state of mind first, before starting to think critically about the pages you’ve received from a fellow writer.

Is This Necessary?

single flower blossom on a white background

Less is more.
Image by Glenn A Lucas from Pixabay

Are you overwhelmed? Desperate for ways to pare down the obligations, shoulds, lists, expectations, and self-flogging? Creativity coach LA Bourgeois (here’s her guest blog about Kaizen Muse for my website) in a recent newsletter advises us to “Chop wood, carry water. This phrase means to focus on simple acts and perform them to the best of your ability. Do NOTHING extra.”

Before you take any action, ask yourself if it is necessary to complete to maintain your body, spirit, heart, and work commitments. If the answer is yes, move forward. If no, move on to the next task.
~ LA Bourgeois

LA’s guidance may ring true for you as it does for me. I’m even considering – gasp – abandoning to-do lists during my time off next month.

Is This the End, My Friend?

empty road in the mountains, with the words "FINISH" painted on the road surface and "START" superimposed above it.

Which is it?
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Are you struggling with the ending to a piece of writing? George Saunders in one of his first public “Office Hours” essays provides ten ways to think about endings. While he’s speaking to short stories, I can see many of these ideas applying in other creative contexts as well.

Consider that, if you’re having trouble with your ending – you’re not.  Your issue is actually the beginning and/or middle of the story.
~ George Saunders

Saunders tells of a class he taught when non-writing-major undergrads all knew which elements of a Vonnegut story needed to be addressed to achieve a satisfactory conclusion. This gives me hope.

Not Made for These Times?

To wrap up, for those readers who, like me, are feeling swamped, struggling to move forward in the wake of so many cruel, baffling, unconscionable decisions from the US Supreme Court and elsewhere: Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach provided a podcast episode for us. “Navigating the Dark Ages” acknowledges the current environment and offers ways to keep going, finding and making meaning along the way with a sense of connectedness to others and participation in the long arc of human history. Give it a listen.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The FLOAT Journal: Becoming Unstuck on the Page, is forthcoming.