A Few Things I’ve Learned About Writing

Reflecting on recent lessons learned, I made this list of highlights, all to do with being a writer.

If…

• If the passive voice were to be used along with conditional or subjunctive or some such mood, and if I were to be given material from a client that happened to include such longwinded and painstakingly constructed language, it might be possible that, as the person being compensated for simplifying the client’s material so that a stranger to the topic might be able to comprehend it, I found myself reducing a lengthy sentence into one declarative statement of few words.

How long?

• Varying the sentence lengths in a long-form piece rocks.

Teacher, teacher!

• My clients and the writers in my writer group are excellent at teaching me how to improve my writing.

• Also, the fictional Emily Starr, protagonist of Lucy Maud Montgomery‘s trilogy, reminds me to keep at it. Emily’s writing career can be a great example of persistence and doggedness, traits that can get the work done, done well, and out the door.

I noticed three copies of my book, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, at a local bookshop last week.

Bookstores

• As rewarding as writing is for its own sake, it is also cool to see a book you wrote on the shelf of a local bookstore. [Hazard of visiting my books at the bookstore: Now I want to read all the other books on the shelf….]

• It’s also even cooler to be paid for books that sold off that shelf.

Funny

• Humor comes in lots of flavors and strengths. It’s often just the ticket (even in nonfunny writing).

An invitation, or a rebuke?

Joy

• Writing can be a pleasure, and a blank page an invitation. When it isn’t, it can be worthwhile to explore why that is. Sometimes even a small change can switch it back into something that feels OK or even good.

Connection

• Writers have a lot to learn from their readers. Sending out the completed book or story or article doesn’t need to be the end of a writer’s (one-sided) connection with readers. Some readers want to know more about – even get acquainted with – the author of that thing they enjoyed reading. And in non-creepy ways.

For me?

Gifts

• Beta readers are generous. When someone volunteers to read your new work before it’s released or published, and then gives you structured, useful feedback about it – that’s pretty much the ideal gift. At least for a writer. Well, online reviews are pretty wonderful, too, now that you mention it.

Like water

• A writer group can make a wannabe writer into a legit one. So can a writing coach. It’s like water on a stone. Slowly, over time, edges are delineated, and rough surfaces polished.

• There’s always more to learn.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and manuscript development services to authors. Her first nonfiction book, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon. #becomingunstuck 

Outlining My Way

I’ve always hated outlines. For big writing projects, that was always the directive: make an outline. Start with your thesis…then flesh it out with evidence. List all the important events in the piece in the right order. Open with conflict…then include key scenes to develop it.

When the instructor didn’t assign an outline, I felt I should use one anyway. It seemed a necessary step on the way to an achieved goal, like letting the dough rise or gassing up the car before a journey. If I skipped outlining, the image of a dull paper covered in red pen plagued me. So like a good doobie, I outlined. I made a list with Roman numerals, capital letters, and numbers. My outline was a beautiful thing, and one to which I rarely returned.

Farewell to Outlines Haiku

I will not ever

use a Roman numeral

in writing again 

Since drafting this piece, I discovered that two writers I know and admire—Bethany Carlson and Dan Willingham—are Old-School Outliners. I’m sure there are others as well, but truly, this piece is not for them. It’s for all the other people—people who, like me, don’t know all that you’ll write before you begin.

After producing many lovely and ignored outlines, I’ve learned to let go of the old way and see my process differently. Writing—even logical, systematic writing, like I do for my research job—is a creative process. I can’t show up at work at 9am and write until 5pm, and I can’t produce an outline and then follow it mechanically to its finish. There are too many unknowns on the way to a finished piece, and they emerge in their own due time. Not by an imposed schedule or anything as regular and top-down as an outline.

Sure, I might know my topic when I start, and I might even have a few things I want to say about it. But! There are invariably insights that arise as I’m writing, thoughts I wasn’t going to think until I wrote the sentence…that I just wrote. (For example, having just written the previous sentence, I thought of the word, emergent. Emergent thoughts, by definition, can’t be known ahead of time. The web tells me that emergent means “in the process of coming into being or becoming prominent.”)

It’s that “in the process” that I love. À la Don Fry, who wrote “Writing Your Way,” I’ve learned to use outlines my way. I use them in the middle of my process. Instead of an outline, that process begins with thinking off the page, contemplation on walks and while washing dishes and at other times when my mind is empty of deliberate input. I might jot some notes down to jog my memory later, like the note for this post I made on July 17: Outlines are not useless…or something to explain how using an outline to get started is only a start, [you] don’t need to stick to it.

At some point after in-the-mind marinating, I’ll write for a bit. Then, when the writing tide ebbs, maybe I’ll make an outline. It might even have a bullet point, but I avoid numerals. Too inevitable. Brainstorming with my writing group is pure fun. At other times, my outline is a diagram, like screenwriters use for movie plots. Or, I’ll use the Comment feature in Microsoft Word Review tab to describe the goal of each paragraph after it’s drafted. An outline that becomes prominent after the writing has commenced honors my personal process in a satisfying, bottom-up way that I don’t experience with the traditional outline.

outline

Maybe the most important thing I’ve learned since my early indoctrination is that there’s no place for “should” in my writing process. Like an old-fashioned outline, “should” makes me feel constrained to rigid sequence, with its mechanical headers and sub-headers and bullet points, and that’s not where my creativity lives.

Instead, I find my creativity in the process, and that’s right where I want my outline. In the middle of the mess and the emergence, it can do its job of guiding, signaling, and organizing.*

*Side note that wouldn’t be in any outline: I’ve heard the best leaders are more like coaches than like bosses—they’re focused less on the product and more on the process. Maybe that means my beef with outlines is really a problem with authority…

–C. E. Cameron

Writing group, times eight

This semester I incorporated writing groups into my college course, Cognitive Psychology of Education. The course includes freshmen (who at UVa are called “First years”) at one end, and PhD students at the other. With a total of 31 students, we have eight writing groups of three or four students each.

Syllabus description for Claire's class at UVa

The class syllabus at UVa

I decided to use writing groups to individualize instruction by grouping students at similar stages together, and to allow them to give and receive peer feedback. As Dr. Bill McKeachie, my first teaching mentor, points out in Teaching  Tips, “interactions that facilitate learning need not be limited to those with teachers. Often those with peers are more productive.”[1]

I’ve been grandly impressed so far. We’ve held two writing groups during class. The first time, students critiqued an informal blog-style post on a course topic they found interesting. The second time, they critiqued one another’s proposals for their course project, either a research proposal, policy paper, or magazine article that they work on all semester.

In both sessions, students followed my instructions to the letter:

writing-group-instructions

The instructions for this writing group

When I was in my early twenties, I’m pretty sure my ego would have impeded such a task. At that stage, I was hungry for positive affirmation and afraid of any type of criticism – even constructive criticism. In discussion of my work, I drowned out anything that wasn’t a compliment with a long explanation of why I made the choices I did. Maybe if I explain it more, they’ll understand. It’s not me, it’s them!

 It wasn’t until I had to seriously revise a manuscript, in graduate school (or was it as a postdoc?!?), that I learned the critical ego lessons:

  1. Critiques are part of the learning process.
  2. Critiques are not personal.
  3. The readers are always (OK, 99.5% of the time) right, and responding sincerely to their critiques improves the work.

Why do my students – some of them not yet 20 years old!! – seem so adept at taking critiques with grace? It took me years, and hours of patient mentoring, to realize critiques were not personal attacks on me, but simply suggestions for improving the work. I harbor a secret theory and hope that we humans are slowly, collectively evolving. My other hypotheses include:

  • My students have adopted a growth mindset, which is Dr. Carol Dweck’s idea that mistakes are part of learning.
  • They know that practice and targeted feedback can help you learn more efficiently.
  • They are aliens from a planet where there is no ego and everyone just helps each other with politeness and sincerity.

Whatever the answer, here are three of my favorite quotes from students in writing group:

In response to my question of whether a group needed more time:

“He hasn’t thanked us for our feedback yet,” (Followed by playful laughter and actual thanking).

Overheard during a discussion:

“It’s just that I think your premise is wrong.” (This was followed by a respectful debate about the nature of education and testing).

In response to my walking around, checking in with groups:

“I decided to reorganize my paper after seeing how C. did it!”

Now three final questions:

  1. Am I proud of my students? Absolutely.
  2. Do I know how they got this way? Not exactly…
  3. Will I happily take a little credit? Yes, but only along with the students themselves, their parents, teachers, grandparents, and mentors, Dr. Dweck, any other writing group experience they’ve had, the evolving human race, and the universe.

Now that I’m not in my twenties, I’ve also learned that while individual effort is necessary to success, there is no such thing as individual accomplishment. We accomplish things in the context of our cultures and communities and in the incubator of our families, classes, and jobs. If those contexts provide us with support – whether emotional or economic – then we can thrive. In those types of contexts, we can learn and grow. If we get feedback about how to improve, in a safe setting where we can actually hear it, we can thrive. On the other hand, if our contexts undermine us, underpay us, or stress us out, we can’t.

I know what kind of world I want to live in. My students are on their way to creating it, one thoughtful critique at a time.

Claire Elizabeth Cameron PhD is a co-founder of BACCA Literary where she practices her critiquing skills. She is a research scientist at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and teaches the Cognitive Psychology of Education.


[1] McKeachie, W. J. (2002). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, research, and theories for college and university teachers. Eleventh edition. Houghton Mifflin. P. 188.

Mind-Expanding Writing Strategies

One thing that I love about “writing in community” is the accountability. Expanding the group of people who can give constructive feedback about our writing makes it a less lonely activity. Writing groups, partners, or teams help cheer us on when we’re stuck. And deadlines for those groups help us keep going even when – like at the end of Daylight Savings Time – we’d like to curl up on the couch instead of sticking to our writing goals. Here are some other mind-expanding* strategies that keep me writing.

1. Writing is an opportunity to be mindful

angkor_thom_image

The author captured this peaceful face beyond the doorways on an October 2013 visit to Angkor Thom, Cambodia

I recently learned the term productive procrastination, which means doing something that seems productive, to avoid doing The Thing that you should be doing – in this case, writing. Ever notice that when you sit down for your daily dose of writing, the dirty dishes or laundry start calling to you? Or for some reason it’s a good time to do your banking?

Even chores can seem compelling if you’ve been out of the writing habit for a while. So: next time this happens, expand your awareness to include this tendency. In other words, simply try to notice, to consciously register, when your mind tries to convince you that something else is more important than your writing. At first, you may still end up avoiding your writing. But after a while of noticing, you can change that habit (your brain is actually re-wiring itself). Now when I catch myself beginning to productively procrastinate, I’m usually able to override the impulse and keep on writing. Sometimes it helps to write down the item on a to-do list so I don’t forget. I just say to myself “You’re writing now, you can do that later.” And it’s true!

2.  Think outside the screen

In this age of electronic devices, sometimes I forget about writing strategies beyond my laptop screen. But interacting with a paper draft is different than on a computer or tablet. I find reading and editing on paper an especially important strategy when I’m working on chapters – or really, anything longer than a couple of pages. When I read on the page, I notice more easily if a sentence needs to be moved up or down, or I can see a whole section that can be edited out. Do you find it difficult to order the action in a novel or short story? Consider cutting up pieces of text and moving things around.

You can also use outlines however they work for you. For example, try outlining after you start writing, or make an outline of what you’ve written. This will show you the entire story and things that are out of place might pop.

3. Writing is part of the learning process

DSCF2278

One of many colorful Buddhas in a park in the Cambodian Cultural Village of Siem Reap. He might be saying “Don’t worry. Be happy. Just write. Then edit.”

I used to have a concept that I would understand something fully and then write it down. But I’ve learned that for me, writing is how I figure things out. In other words, I’ve broadened my definition of “writing” to include “writing to learn,” in addition to “writing to teach” (or explain, describe, or entertain). I’m not so hesitant anymore to start writing even if I don’t know where it might lead.

4. Expect to edit

Learning is a process. We are all in that process. Even experts write “crappy drafts.” Which is why another thing that’s just part of writing is editing. And to truly open a piece up to its possibilities, some parts of yourself may need to be uninvited from the editing part of the process. For example, the “that’s not good enough yet” voice and the “everything I do is perfect” voice do not belong in the editing room with you. Banish those voices and you will have more room to think.

*Credit to the great wordsmith, A M Carley.

— CE Cameron