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 

Things I’ve Learned About Writing From Teaching Math

“Who would like to show their process on the board?”

joke This is a question I ask many times a week. I teach Algebra and Precalculus at Renaissance School. I love it.

One of the challenges I have teaching at a school like Renaissance, which is for high aptitude students in Arts, Humanities, and Sciences, is that some of my students have almost a spooky natural facility with math – but many of the artists, actors, humanitarians, photographers, and musicians have developed something close to a phobia of it by the time they’ve gotten to high school. Since math is a required subject for graduation no matter the track of their studies, one way or another, we’ve got to make it to the end of the year.

My main goal is for every student to finish the class with confidence. They don’t need to be a wiz; I just want them to be able to tell themselves, “I can do this.”

paranormaldistributionSo I focus on process, not outcomes. Getting the right answer the fastest doesn’t accrue any brownie points in my class. Instead, I encourage students to come up to the board and show their thought process. Like I often say, “There’s more than one path from here to the MudHouse.” And I often add, while they’re nervously approaching the board for the first time, “We’re all on the same team. We’ve got your back. Let’s get through this problem together.”

So, it was a HUGE thrill about two months into the school year when one of my most math-phobic students said, “Ms. Carlson, can I show my process on the board for problem 37? I’m getting stuck and I don’t know what to do next.” Yes. Yes you can.

find_x_lolNow that the school year is coming to a close, I’ve almost worked myself out of a job. The students work together in groups. The quick ones race ahead, learn the new formulas, and teach them to their peers. Everyone is going to be wrapping up the year with confidence. With a process for solving problems.

Which, finally, brings me back to what teaching math has taught me about writing. I’m not sure I appreciated it fully in the beginning, but one of the things that has made BACCA a great writing group for the last four years is the feeling that we’re all on the same team. We’re not competing with one another; we have different skills and aptitudes; we work together to give candid feedback and solve problems. We, too, focus on process, not outcomes. Naturally, we all harbor dreams of seeing this or that work published. But our esteem in the eyes of each other is based in the work we do in the small ways each month, not the grand finale.

Writing may be a solitary exercise, but improving as a writer is a team effort. Just like math.

Bethany Joy Carlson is a founding member of BACCA, a WriterHouse Board Member, and owner of The Artist’s Partner.

BACCA’s Back! Virginia Festival of the Book 2015

BACCA Literary Is Back at VaBook!

Virginia Festival of the Book 2015Yes, we’re presenting again in 2015, and on PubDay – the best day of the entire festival. Uh-huh. (We’re a bit biased.)

Come spend Saturday morning with us in the James Monroe Room at the Omni Hotel in Downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. We start at 10am on Saturday, 21 March 2015. As I write this, there’s snow on the ground, but odds are overwhelmingly in favor of a charming spring day when you visit with us at the Virginia Festival of the Book.

What will we be doing this year?

Glad you asked. We’re coming to talk about writer groups – how to be in one, and how to find or create one.

When we did our session last time, we chatted with the Festival guests before and after our remarks about writer groups. It was a lot of fun, and good ideas came up. But there was something missing: More interaction with the Festival guests.

So, this time, we’re creating opportunities for Festival guests to meet one another and chat briefly, right in the middle of our session. Visitors to our session may possibly meet the future members of their new writer groups. And everyone will definitely have opportunities to learn more about writer groups, and what they can do to hone writerly and analytical skills. And cat-herding skills. Okay, maybe not that last one.

Where is The James Monroe Room at the Omni?

It’s easy to get to. From the hotel’s central atrium, turn toward the ballrooms. Catty-corner to the last ballroom entrance is our room, The James Monroe.

Map showing BACCA session

Shy, Introverted, Both?

Arrgh. So are some of us.

I know, I know. A Festival session with “activities.” The blurb for our session actually includes these words: “BACCA will guide Festival-goers in a fun and educational, hands-on mixer that will break the ice and start the process of building a writing community.”

It’s enough to make you run for the hills, isn’t it? Reconsider, please. Get an extroverted writerly friend to join you, and come join us. We’re gentle, promise. You might enjoy yourself. We look friendly, right?

The members of BACCA Literary

BACCA Literary Founding Members: Carolyn O’Neal, AM Carley, Bethany Joy Carlson, and Claire Elizabeth Cameron, after planning BACCA Literary’s 2015 VaBook session.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, helps nonfiction authors get their books completed, polished, and out into the world.

Relearning How To Write When I’m Happy

Writing and I need to work on our relationship. My new year’s resolution is to learn how to be a writer when I’m happy.

I’ve been a writer since 2007, when my depression and anxiety drove me to put pen to paper as a means to survive. I shut myself in my room with my laptop for up to 12 hours a day, hammering out stories about betrayal, loss, illness, death. I had a seemingly endless well of conflict inside, fuel to drive fables, screenplays, novels, poems… I wrote a lot.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

doodle by bethany

Thankfully, over the last 8 years my mental health has improved. Happiness is no longer a figment; it’s where I spend significant amounts of my time. Writing is not what pays the bills, but I’m enjoying my jobs, I love my friends, and I’m thankful for the little things, like a cup of coffee with a big red-headed Viking of a man each morning.

So, I’m no longer desperate, panicked, get-the-words-out-or-I-will-drown-in-them. I still love stories, to get absorbed in a book or a daydream. But the truth is, if I’m not awakened by a nightmare at 3am jumping out of my skin, I have a hard time sitting down and getting down to actually writing.

I’ve had relationships in the past based on complaining, gossip, lamenting, and grief; misery does love company. Some of these friendships have not survived my transition out of depression. But my very best friend has hung in there with me: the scary start of the slump, the increasing dark days, the long struggle, and the climb back into the light. We’ve had some rough patches, but my sister has not resented the ways I’ve changed, we’ve both adapted, and our relationship now is now stronger than ever.

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

doodle by bethany

This is the model I’m hoping to pattern my writing life after in 2015. My laptop and I do not need to be in a codependent relationship. I’m hoping to learn that I can sit down to write because I want to, not because I need to. I can let go of the fear that my creativity dissipated along with my anxiety.

I can write for the joy of it.

I find that starting new habits requires some practical little guidelines to help them along. To facilitate my new year’s resolution of learning to write when I’m happy, I plan to:

  • Put my dream journal out at night before I go to bed
  • Honor the blocs of writing time I have set aside in my schedule
  • Leave space for other creative pursuits I enjoy, like drawing, collage, and origami

I don’t want to break up with writing because I’ve changed. So I’m working on it. Wish us well.

Bethany Joy Carlson is the founder of The Artist’s Partner and a co-founder of BACCA. And she’s still a writer.

Some Tech Tools for Writers

calendar of Oct - Nov - Dec 2014

What’s Left of 2014

It’s fall. Everyone’s back at their desks, and signs of the November->January holiday madness are still faint enough to ignore. So in other words, we’re all on the brink of overwhelm. If, like me, you are juggling writing projects with other work, you want to feel you’ve got the materials you need, wherever you happen to find yourself when the time opens up to work on your writing projects.

Lately, I have found a few tools that really help keep overwhelm at bay, particularly in collaborative environments.

Tracking Shared Projects

To keep track of shared projects (in my world, that usually involves 2-5 people), I used to make a table in Word of the topics and tasks within each topic that were to be managed. The parties involved each received a copy by email, and wrote back happy emails about how organized we all were. That part usually went pretty well. Then the ugly part began when it came time to update it, and keep track of version numbers, and revision dates, and who had received an emailed copy of the latest version, and on and on. It became a minefield, not a helpful tool. So many accurate and true things in that table could become wrong and out of date, so quickly.

Now for shared projects I encourage my book coaching clients and other project collaborators to use Trello. It’s a web-based tool, free for basic use, for listing items and adding comments, files, checklists, calendared deadlines, images and other media, and more. A page, known as a Board, in Trello’s default format, which is easily edited, shows three vertical lists headed To Do, Doing, and Done. One oddity: You can’t delete items from Trello, but you can archive them so they aren’t on your screen.

Sample Board in Trello

Sample Board in Trello

Search is nice and fast. It works on devices with a web connection – which includes computers, tablets, smartphones, and so on. And it’s always up to date. When people add their two cents, or a new task, or check a box in a checklist, everybody involved will know about it the next time they visit the Trello board. The ugly part from the old days of tables build in Word just pretty much disappears.

Floating Research Library

It’s true what they all say about Evernote: You really won’t need to keep those scraps of paper any more. It’s amazing to me how readily I adapted from “Where the $%^& did I put that stick-it with that book title / idea for subplot / phone number / song fragment?” to “Oh yeah, I’ll just look in Evernote. I bet I put it there.” Like Trello, Evernote’s search is super-fast and thorough. Also as with Trello, you can make categories and sub-items, here called Notebooks and Notes, subject to annotation, media attachments, live URL links, etc. For me, Evernote is my great reference library in the sky. Nothing is too small to put up there.

I’ve been at meetings with only my phone, yet equipped to answer questions, back up my assertions, illustrate ideas, and keep the ball rolling because I’ve got Evernote on my phone. And when you come across that brilliant idea or crucial piece of info while you’re out and about, you can email it to your Evernote library with your special dedicated email address (that you remembered to stick into your smartphone’s contacts directory, of course). It works on most devices. Unlike Trello, the Evernote software is not web-based – you download an app, free for basic use, from the company’s website and it resides on your device, while sharing the contents of your library with other devices you authorize. There’s a username/password gate to pass through, securing access to your stuff.

Facebook Groups

I feel a little tacky admitting this, but you know what? Facebook can be a useful collaboration tool. Protect your privacy, of course, as you would with anything at all posted there, but within bounds, a Closed or Secret Facebook group can become a terrific tool for shared projects. Keep one another up to date, ask questions, post calendared events, share files and links. The biggest downside? You have to go on Facebook to access the good stuff your colleagues are sharing with you inside your walled garden. Time sucks lurk just outside the garden wall.

Image of a garden wall

Beware what lurks outside. Image from HGTV.com

Again, it’s free of charge, web-based, and platform-independent. A web connection is all you need. We BACCA members rely on such a group for keeping in touch between meetings.

Google Calendar

The interface is unbeautiful, old, and clunky, admittedly, and privacy is, uh, dubious, but inviting people to meetings, setting aside the time for them, linking to an agenda document, and other such administrative tasks can be handled pretty well from within Google Calendar. By the way, you can invite people who don’t have a gmail address. It’s web-based, platform independent and free of charge.

File Storage

When I have the chance to get some writing work done, I’m not always at my home office with access to the files stored on the server there. I switched a while back from Dropbox to Sync, as the place to keep drafts of works in progress. Truth be told, I prefer to use it only for temporary storage. (That’s probably my 60s-era bad attitude showing up, as it is wont to do these days.) Like the other products mentioned here, it is free for basic use. Sync says it uses encryption and otherwise is better at protecting my privacy than the competition.

Backup Is On You

With Trello and Evernote and Facebook and Google Calendar and everything else web-based, backing up your data is your job – not theirs. Procedures and file formats differ, so be sure to find out the ways to save copies from the cloud down to something local under your control. Then – and this is important – slot the time into your regular routine actually to DO those backups. It’s the old umbrella-toting-rainstorm-averting theory – if you make backups you’ll probably never need them. So make them.

Privacy

Yeah, not so much. I recommend assuming, at a minimum, that what you put up in the Cloud is or may be subject to anonymous data-mining. In addition, personally, I wouldn’t use any of these tools to store usernames and passwords, Social Security and other such valuable identifying numbers, large address books and contacts directories, valuable intellectual property, and confidential documents. Sync’s website includes a blog post itemizing some of the more egregious privacy policies out there.

The Monster in the Shadows

Okay, I admit it. Not covered here is a recommendation for the tool that facilitates easy collaboration on an actual document. That’s because I’m still looking for something better than Track Changes in Word. Please understand, by that I mean I really really really want to find something better. I have been known to wail, curse, stamp my feet, sigh, and otherwise demonstrate my utter frustration with that inadequate, inelegant, outdated tool. One that I’ve read interesting things about is called Draft. Here’s its info page about version tracking and revisions.

PS – In the day since this blogpost went up, I’ve come across a few more things on this topic. Two colleagues and fellow BACCA-ites chimed in: Bethany Joy Carlson mentioned Google Docs as a useful alternative to Word for some purposes (although I’ve also seen negative reviews of it for security concerns, for example), and C E Cameron is checking out Scrivener (as I am). And then I recalled having seen mention of Poetica for online document collaboration. And then I realized that Jane Friedman’s recent blog post about alternatives to Word may have been the place I learned about Poetica.

What do you think? Do these and other tools help you keep the overwhelm at a manageable distance? Please tell us in the Comments below.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, is a founding member of BACCA, and is CEO of Chenille Books which provides editing and coaching services to authors.

 

7 Things I’ve Learned About Writing From Casting

Bethany casting a major motion picture in 2014... right before 1,055 boys and their entourages arrived

Bethany casting a major motion picture in 2014… right before 1,055 boys and their entourages arrived

One of my favorite jobs is being a Casting Assistant for Arvold.

A funny thing happens when you work casting. Actors come up to you and ask, “why didn’t (my son / my niece / my spouse) I get the part?!?”

If I’m ever feeling low about my rejections (I’m currently 0 for 2 this year on screenwriting competitions), I remind myself of these seven things I’ve learned about writing from casting.

  1. There’s a lottery element to producing creative work. I recently assisted at an “open call”, e.g. an audition for a major motion picture that was open to the public. We auditioned ONE THOUSAND FIFTY FIVE boys in four hours. We turned away over a thousand more. The police had to direct traffic. Art is tied to dreams, and a lot of people share the dream of seeing their creative work produced and shared and enjoyed. So the competition is stiff. It’s just not statistically sound to expect more yesses than noes.
  2. It’s worth it to show up even if I don’t book the gig. Most of the actors I see don’t book the part they’re auditioning for. But, I get to see them work. Which means when I’m brainstorming whom to call for the next project, the faces I’ve seen over and over again leap to mind. Familiarity is powerful. If you’re professional on the phone and email, show up on time, take direction, and keep your cool, you’re showing that you’re a pro – even if you don’t book this particular gig. So I make sure when I’m talking with agents, editors, producers, and other professionals, I’m behaving myself accordingly. Even if they don’t bite on my project. Yet.
  3. A performance can be amazing – and not right for the job. I have cried at auditions where the actor did not book the part. If we are looking for a haggard woman crying over the death of her son, and the actor is young and beautiful, they may nail the performance but simply not be right for the role. I submitted to a comedy screenplay contest earlier this year. My script is good, but it is dark. I call it a dark comedy, but reviewers call it a comedic drama. If the contest winner turns out to be a classic slapstick comedy, I’ll know my submission just was not right for what the judges were looking for.
  4. No performance happens in a vacuum. No actor’s performance stands alone in a film or TV show. It needs to be compatible with the other performances. If we’ve already cast 10 of 20 speaking roles for a particular show, the other 10 roles that remain to be cast need actors who complement the rest. The same holds true for a publisher’s line-up. If I submit a Young Adult manuscript about a 15-year-old Physics prodigy, and the publisher is already about to debut a Young Adult book about a 15-year-old Astrophysics prodigy, that’s just my bad luck. My book does not exist in a vacuum.
  5. Some days are bad days. This doesn’t really need an explanation. Even good actors have a bad day and turn in a lackluster performance. Sometimes my writing has no spark. C’est la vie.
  6. Some actors aren’t ready yet. We’re doing emerging actors a favor by not putting them in roles they can’t carry. Ideally, we want to set everyone up so they can succeed. Frankly, when I look back on it, I’m really relieved some of the manuscripts I submitted never got picked up. I would not want my major debut to have been that (in hindsight) overwritten mess.
  7. Beautiful and photogenic are not the same thing. I’m still trying to come to grips with the difference between what looks good to the naked eye and what works on camera. There are a lot of differences, actually: What works on stage is massive overkill on camera. Comic timing and dramatic connection are not the same muscle. Large features on a face may look a bit strange in person, but the camera lens may love them. And lots of actors are still trying to work out where exactly their talent lies – and auditions can help that process, because experts are effectively giving feedback over time based on what kinds of jobs an actor ultimately books. I felt that way about my writing for a long time. Do I write short stories? Fables? YA? Flash fiction? Graphic novels? It wasn’t until I really dug into screenwriting that I felt like I found my true strength.

I guess if there’s one thing to take away about writing from casting, it’s that persistence and professionalism pay off. Don’t take rejection personally; it’s probably moving you closer to your goal.

 

Arvold casts award-winning film (Lincoln), television (Turn: Washington’s Spies), and commercials (just wait till you see the Williamsburg Tourism commercial coming in 2015). If you are interested in learning more about film and television in the Mid-Atlantic, consider attending one of the monthly Arvold Live sessions – they are an invaluable discussion with industry pros about how Virginia’s star is rising for actors – and everyone who works in the business.

Bethany Joy Carlson writes dark comedy screenplays. (Or comedic dramas, depending on whom you ask.) She is a WriterHouse Board member, owner of TheArtistsPartner.com, and founder of BACCA.

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

Five Benefits of a Writing Group for Academic Writers

In my day job at the University of Virginia, I do research, which many people may not realize involves a lot of writing. As my boss says, “In academia, the coin of the realm is publishing.” Our research group, called Foundations of Cognition and Learning or FOCAL, examines the underlying foundational skills that children need to succeed in school. Skills like self-control, visuo-motor skills, and motivation.

This post is about how writing groups can help technical and academic writers. Academic writing is a certain type of creative challenge because it’s essentially like learning a new language. There are particular words to use and not to use. Rules for when to use something called causal language, which implies a traditional experiment with a control group. Rules for the precise difference among highly similar words, like effect, effects, affect, and affects. Rules like never using fragments or phrases.

If you don’t know the difference between impulsivity, impulse control, effortful control, inhibitory control, inhibition, perseverate, attentional shifting, and executive function – if you’ve never even heard of these words and feel perfectly content about that – you are a normal person. Because all those words essentially mean “self-control,” and they have to do with how we must deliberately plan, organize, and apply effort to learn new things.

It's tiem to get organized

In academia, because scientists examine the most subtle details of phenomena like human behavior, we end up coining obscure phrases that only a few experts in that particular area master. As a graduate student, or as a scholar new to an area of study, figuring out what an article is even about can be maddening. Learning how to write in the style of scientific writing takes years, and learning how to write well in this style is even more of a challenge.

I was reminded of this a few years ago when I started writing about an area that is new to me: visuo-motor skills. I had been writing about self-control for 8 years, and when I tackled motor development, I felt like a first-year graduate student all over again. I remembered how challenging and just plain frustrating it was to build a skill from scratch. It felt like I would never get better!

For the past two semesters, I’ve been involved in an academic writing group that helps doctoral students and their mentors make progress on their writing. When the group concluded this spring, the students liked it so much they decided to keep meeting over the summer. The mentors liked it so much we decided to keep meeting over the summer too! (In the fall, we’ll all get back together). Here are five benefits of our group:

1. Effective feedback mechanism. Scientists are trained to consider a position from all sides and refute challenges. Arguing for one’s point is part of the business. But when learning to write, this somewhat antagonistic stance serves no one. My academic writing group adopted the BACCA model of allotting the first 15 minutes or so of the session for the readers to comment and for the author to listen. As our academic writing group leader Dr. Sonia Cabell pointed out, “Not responding when someone comments on our work is simply unnatural. We spend so much time on the piece that it feels impossible not to respond and defend our efforts.”

Even so, she and I agreed that was the best decision we made in structuring the group. An “author listening period” allowed the readers to build a conversation and comment off one another. Themes became evident and so were areas of disagreement among the readers. After the listening period, the author was invited to ask clarifying questions and seek more information from the readers. A side benefit of this practice was that we learned one can separate the piece of work from one’s own identity – this is what I call “ego work.”

2. Allow for comparison and contrast. In our group, students with widely varying interests – literacy development, self-control, preschool math education, measurement of visuo-motor skills, and cultural competence of student teachers – all read each other’s drafts. They told us this had two benefits: first, they learned about areas they didn’t otherwise encounter. Second, they more easily saw the principles of strong writing because they had examples of the same style of writing (academic) on so many different topics. In other words, their tunnel vision – so essential when becoming expert in a focused area – broadened.

3. Confidence building. The group involved four mentors – established research faculty who have been writing for a long time – and we mentors submitted our own working drafts. Thus, the students got to see our rough drafts. Our rough drafts were – and this is a technical term – messy. We started calling them “crappy drafts.” For university students, who are surrounded by long-time PhDs, it’s a relief to see that writing well is difficult for mentors, too. It’s difficult for everyone. Which leads to the fourth benefit:

4. Practice: The writing group provided multiple opportunities to practice and receive timely feedback on our writing. A few students submitted the same paper more than once, albeit with changes and improvements. And as research on expertise shows, improving at a skill requires practice. A LOT of practice.

5. Large return on investment. Our academic writing group did not take a lot of time. Students enrolled for one independent study credit. We met every other week for 1 hour, and reviewed two pieces of writing. When necessary we were able to review in BACCA speed, 20 minutes, though we tried to give each person more like 25-30 minutes.

Other than the professional benefits, we had a lot of fun together! The students keep coming back, so we must be doing something right. If you are interested in creating your own academic writing group, please contact Claire Cameron at cecameron(at)virginia.edu.

Claire Cameron