Blog on Writing

Never Stop Learning

Learning Road Sign

How to confound your family in one easy step . . . Curl up on the couch reading Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves and laugh uproariously while your family is trying to watch television in the same room. “Only a writer,” you say. And you’d be right. Or an editor, agent, or publisher. That scenario actually happened, by the way. Truss’s book is still one of my favourites. And who else would read The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style cover to cover and get excited when he or she came across the wonderful reference tool by Kathy Ide titled Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors? Would you consider an online subscription to The Chicago Manual of Style one of your best professional investments? Those of us in the writing industry think differently than others, but you already knew that. Two years ago, I sat in on literary agent Steve Laube’s continuing class at Write Canada. It was a great class, overflowing with so much insight. After all, he has been in the industry over three decades and has learned a lot over the years. One of the best takeaways was a list of books Steve considers must-reads for authors. I have been building my reference library based on his suggestions. When I saw Steve at The Word Awards in June, I suggested he add Don McNair’s book Editor-Proof Your Writing to his list. I would encourage all fiction writers to get a copy of McNair’s book. It is well worth reading and referring to often. In it he shares 21 ways to almost instantly make your writing better. I have quite a backlog of Web posts I would love to read by industry professionals like Jane Friedman, Jeff Goins, and Kristen Lamb. And I know there are countless others, many of which are tucked away in folders connected to my email accounts. Stacks of books. Piles of back copies of Writer’s Digest. Websites galore. It can all be very overwhelming. But I have to keep learning, and so should you. Life is all about maintaining tension (some say balance) and we must be careful not to spend so much time learning that we neglect doing. Writers must write. Editors must edit. Publishers must publish. (I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t work for agents.) Whatever our pursuit in the writing industry – and elsewhere – we must continue to do what we do to the best of our ability while continuing to learn at every opportunity. Here are six tips on how to expand your knowledge: 1. Each day look up at least one word you come across that you can’t readily define. Keep a list of words and their definitions and review it often. 2. Pull one of your favourite reference books off the shelf and re-read it. 3. Purchase one new reference book and commit to reading it before the end of the year. I would suggest Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors or Editor-Proof Your Writing. 4. Search the Internet for webinars or blogs directed at writers. Read at least one post and/or “attend” one webinar per week – or one per month, if that’s more doable for you. 5. Be humble. If you think something is right but aren’t 100 percent sure, look it up in a reference work like The Chicago Manual of Style. (As I mentioned, the online version is extremely handy.) 6. Attend the InScribe conference in the fall. What is your favourite skills development book or website? Steph Beth Nickel is a freelance writer and editor and the coauthor of former Paralympian Deborah L. Willows’ memoir, Living Beyond My Circumstances. You can contact her at stephbethnickel@gmail.com. Steph invites you to visit her website – http://stephbethnickel.com – her blog Steph Nickel’s Eclectic Interests – and her Facebook page. (photo thanks to Sarah Grace Photography)

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How to “Right” Funny – Brenda Wood

Live Laugh Love Banner

I’m told that I write funny. People laugh at my comments all the time, but I can’t say that I always understand why. Anyway, there is no point trying to dissect the why of a joke because then the joke is no longer funny.  Some of the world’s funniest people had no sense of humour at all, but their work is hilarious. Think Lucille Ball. You don’t need a sense of humour to be funny because funny is in your mind.  (more…)

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Getting value from a writer’s conference — Carolyn Wilker


Having attended writer’s conferences over the years, I encourage others to try it out. Those opportunities charged and inspired me and offered the push I needed to move on.  It’s one thing to sign up and say you’re going; preparing oneself to get the most from the event is just as important.  (more…)

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Write an Autobiography – Jack Popjes

70 years ago, author on far right

  Parents and grandparents generally want to leave an inheritance to their children and grandchildren. These legacies usually range from money, jewelry, or real estate, to such simple keepsakes as photographs. My four grandparents in the Netherlands left me nothing! The reason probably was that my family emigrated to Canada when I was twelve years old and we never saw each other again. What bothers me the most is that they left no heritage of life stories. Nothing—not a single anecdote. All they left me was a head full of questions. Why did my Grandpa move his family from a fishing port in Friesland to an interior city in another province? My father was born on the houseboat where they lived; did they move at least partway on that boat? Was their churchgoing just doing the culturally expected thing, or did they have a personal relationship with God? I would love to know the answers to questions like these. Christians have a special mandate from God Himself to tell the God-stories of their lives to the next generation. Psalm 102:18, for instance, commands, “Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD.” Then follows a list of things that God did for His people in the past. I do workshops for retired people on this very subject. I teach them how to remember and write the stories of God’s intervention in their lives, times when He answered prayers, or when He arranged incredible coincidences to supply needs or give protection. Find the post here. So, in response to the prompt, if I had a whole year in which I could focus completely on my writing, I would write a full autobiography. I already have a ton of resources: Daily diaries, mostly handwritten, from age 21 to 56 Partial diaries from age 57 to 76 Daily written prayers full of issues, facts and feelings, from age 67 to 76. Nearly a thousand blog posts, published articles, letters, and unpublished papers, most of them containing personal experience stories. Timeline lists of the significant people and events of each year, the two dozen houses and six countries I’ve lived in, the jobs I’ve had, and so on. Thousands of photos and slides, nearly all scanned and available in digital format and sorted by year or by subject. I would finish dictating my handwritten diaries into digital format so I could search them easily and quickly. Next, I would fill in my life timeline by dating every story and anecdote and noting the location. I would keep praying that God would guide me to develop the story line, the main overarching plot and the themes I would want to bring out. In it all, I would want to bring glory to God showing that it was He who preserved our family through the Second World War and through all the difficult early years in Canada as a poor immigrant family. It was God who brought me to Himself to become the first Christian in our family, and it was He who led me into half a century of fruitful Christian service on the mission field and elsewhere. Whatever I accomplished in my life, it was God who did it through me, and often in spite of me. In Spite of Me. Hmm, that may be a good title! This Wiki site is particularly helpful since it lays out four main stages from mapping out your life and crafting your story, to editing and publishing. Jack Popje started writing stories for their missionary newsletters during the decades he and his wife were Bible translators in Brazil. For the past twenty years, he has blogged weekly on missions, church, Christian spirituality, and Bible translation. His current blog is INsights & OUTbursts. He has print published three books and e-published two books of story-based articles—all selected from his blogs. His storytelling ability makes him a popular speaker who averages fifty speaking events each year. jack@jackpopjes.com  

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Focused or Forgettable – Pamela Mytroen


Without focus a photo is of little value and is destined for the garbage, forgotten. A piece of writing must have focus or it may also be forgotten. Consider a good photograph. What is it that draws you in and provokes an emotional response? It is the main subject matter in the photo. In the photo below, the eye is drawn to the waterfall in the centre. Most people will notice the waterfall first, and then become aware of the frame of trees, the lovely greens and other details. The waterfall, or the main subject matter, is the focal point and is what draws in the eye. The photographer could have focused on the trees in the foreground instead and used the waterfall as a backdrop. Either way, there must be a focus point. Without it, there is little or no emotional attachment. Writing - like a well-focused photo Writing is very similar. There must be a main point which evokes an emotional response. If not, the reader does not connect and will turn the page. How does a writer create an emotionally charged main point? A dependable way is to ‘go with your gut.’ It’s one thing to determine the facts about what you are trying to say, but more importantly, a writer needs to get in touch with how he feels about what he’s trying to say. Connect with the readers' emotions For example, a writer can take any topic such as the new four-way stop signs in town. This is not necessarily invigorating news. However, if the writer expresses his passion for or against the stop signs, it connects with the reader immediately. Most readers will be drawn to an emotional expression because it is an opportunity to explore and validate their own opinion on the topic. “Four-Way Stop Signs Installed” versus “Four-Way Stop Signs Sure to Cause Traffic Accidents” While news is not always the place to express opinion, it does show the difference between an emotionally charged and a merely factual focus. Focus is nothing without supporting detail. Detail provides context, which serves to both contrast and support the main point. In the photo of the waterfall, the trees are like a frame. They support and hold up the main subject matter.  However, their colour also contrasts with the waterfall, making the focus even more noticeable. In writing, the supporting and contrasting points also serve to bring the main point into clear focus. The best way to illustrate this may be with a photo that has no outstanding focus, as in the example below. What's the focus? Although the details are a lovely colour, the eye is distracted. It cannot find a focus point. Re-imagine this same photo, this time with the green apple as the focus. It has a large bite taken out of it. Juice dribbles down the side. It sits in a lovely fruit bowl surrounded by the other fruits. This type of photo is more likely to cause a reaction, such as hunger or thirst. Then the green apple would stand out because of the way it compares and contrasts with the other fruits, which may be off to the side or slightly out of focus. Compare this same technique to a piece of writing. For example, choose between pieces entitled “Fruit is good for you” and “Green Apples May Prevent Cancer.” Which piece has more focus? Which piece are you more drawn to read? While your main point may be about green apples preventing cancer, your supporting points could include how other fruits compare in their cancer prevention. For unforgettable writing, imagine each piece as a photo in which you are focused on your passion front and centre. Pamela Mytroen is a member of Inscribe Christian Writers' Fellowship and an English Language Assessor at Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks.    

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