Why It’s OK To Be An Awful Writer

With my recent move to Central Florida, my routine has changed. I’ve found it difficult to keep up with my writing schedule now that I’m here, and it has meant that I’ve had to refine my habits.

That’s why I found comfort in this article from Mathew Henderson titled “It’s Ok To Be An Awful Writer.” In the article, Henderson gives some excellent advice for all writers worried about their craft:

It’s okay to be an awful writer. In fact, I suspect most great writers are also terrible writers. It all depends what you show people.

I think this is the key to beating the empty screen. Because it’s the pressure that kills, right? The urge to write the next great novel, or make a boatload of money with scandalous, (un)literary smut, or prove what a deep, deep thinker you are with stark poems about the common man. The pressure is too consistent, too constant, to ever get anything done.

So, yield to mediocrity, accept that the next word you write is likely going to be the wrong word and keep going anyway. The real worst case scenario isn’t that you might write something bad–you have a recycling bin (real and virtual) that can and should overflow with bad writing. The worst case scenario is that you might write nothing at all.

He goes on to give advice on how he avoids the pitfalls of writer’s block:

1. Each and every time I go to write, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to fail. It doesn’t stick with you. The pressure doesn’t go away. I sit down, and I want each word to be the next word of the best thing I’ve ever written.

2. Some people write very slowly, word by word, editing as they go. They are rare and beautiful creatures. You’re probably not a rare and beautiful creature. You’re probably like me.

Getting Things DoneMy personal approach to writing is similar to his: I believe in freewriting and scheduled writing times every day, usually in the morning. I come up with my best ideas this way. I do a lot of my early drafting and brainstorm on paper instead of the computer to avoid the blinking cursor. I also try to take notes throughout the day when I think of an idea; my smartphone and notebooks are full of random notes.

The key is to stop worrying about being awful and just write. It ends up better than you think.

Our contributing editor Jason Braun writes a poem-a-day to keep his writing alive. Other writers devote to a set number of words or pages every day. I devote at least a half hour to writing something, although I often devote more.

Writers: what do you do to keep up with your writing? How do you avoid writer’s block, and how do you meet your goals? Feel free to let us know in the comments!

Homophone Check and Grammarly: Automating Grammar Instruction

Fountain pen/Flickr Creative Commons/Luigi Crespo Photography http://www.flickr.com/photos/crespoluigi/3334034672/
Fountain pen/Flickr Creative Commons/Luigi Crespo Photography http://www.flickr.com/photos/crespoluigi/3334034672/

As a college instructor, I’ve struggled with teaching grammar in the classroom. For various reasons, grammar instruction is de-emphasized in college writing, and the focus is on higher concepts like rhetoric and analysis.

There are times when I need to teach grammar. I do a lot of one-on-one conferencing with my students to help them improve as writers, but I’ve never had a way to let them check issues on their own.

Recently, I’ve discovered two tools that have helped me introduce grammar concepts to students without having to dig through textbooks: Grammarly and Homophone Check.

Both tools allow you to copy and paste essays. They will check for grammar issues, highlight them, and explain the concepts further. While Grammarly focuses on style, spelling and plagiarism, Homophone Check finds homophones and explains how they are used correctly.

Both tools are excellent. When I used Homophone Check, it highlighted every homophone. If I floated my mouse pointer over any of the  homophones, I’d see a description of each similar word used in a sentence:


This tool is especially helpful for students who deal with spelling or word choice issues. I’ve found this is a very common problem.

Grammarly gives a report and prompts you to sign up for a 7-day trial. You can use the service for those 7-days, but after that it costs $19.95 a month. That’s quite expensive! Homophone Check is free, which makes sense for a service like this.

Both of these tools help with editing as well. If you’re a writer who struggles with basic grammar and spelling and don’t think your word processor’s built-in grammar tools do enough, these sites will help you. If you’re a teacher, these tools will help you explain concepts to students who might not understand them without seeing it.

Homophone Check is particularly helpful because homophones are a persistent problem for some writers. The site’s visual tools help writers understand the concepts on the spot.

I like both these sites because it helps emphasize basic grammar concepts without “fixing” them for the student. That’s why these tools will help writers learn the concepts, not just erase mistakes.

Teachers, writers, editors: what other tools do you use? Let me know in the comments.

(Disclosure: Jason Braun, a writer and editor here at Critical Margins, created Homophonecheck.com. I have no direct affiliation with the site beyond knowing Jason and liking his product. Grammarly is a site I use, but I have no affiliation with it except as an enthusiastic user.)


A Book Is a Start-up, says the New Yorker

kindle and laptop

kindle and laptop

I came across an interesting article this weekend at the New Yorker‘s book blog Page-Turner titled “A Book Is a Start-up.” There were many points brought up in the article, but this stood out to me:

“A book is a startup,” declared Peter Armstrong in a speech about his serialized book company, Leanpub. “I said it in 2010, and I’ll say it again.” Armstrong had on Steve Jobs couture—a long-sleeved black shirt and blue jeans—as he addressed a packed audience in New York at the Tools of Change conference, three days of workshops about the future of books, specialized breakout sessions, and an e-reading exhibition called the “Digital Petting Zoo.” This was a house of mobile apps and metadata, seemingly built in a clearing in the wilderness; there was something of an adventurous spirit, as if making a book were unchartered terrain. The halls were buzzing with frenetic publishers and entrepreneurs. Many were tweeting furiously.

This corner of the publishing world envisions a book as a technological enterprise, and the Web’s hustlers are riding in from every direction to get in on the market. Their approach is informed by scrappy tech culture, but motivated by the literary cachet of books. Tim Sanders, a former Yahoo executive who is now the C.E.O. of Net Minds, a service for crowd-sourcing book production, said that it’s “the allure of the book” that entices people to work on one. (“A Book Is a Start-up”)

If we think of the book in this way, this means writers have to be their own entrepreneurs. As Jason and I have discussed in our ongoing debate about Tim Ferriss and the 4-hour movement, creative types have to start thinking of themselves as brands.

When writers, whether they self-publish or not, take charge of their own promotion, it means the writer’s job is not finished when the book is published. Sure, writers have played a part in their own book promotion for a while, but until recently they haven’t been solely responsible for the success or failure of their book.

To me, this means writers need to start thinking about their work as part of a larger career track, not as single works of art. There’s a business savvy that all creative types need to develop, especially when promoting books online.

Readers: what do you think?

On writing in the morning for night owls

blurry eyed morning writing

Why do so many successful writers insist on writing first thing in the morning? What about us night owls?

For years, I was a night owl. And by night owl, I don’t mean going to bed after Leno, I mean staying up until 4 or 5 a.m. Most of the time, I did important things: I’d write, play guitar, or study (who am I kidding: I played a lot of video games). Still, I got into the habit of staying up way later than what is considered “normal.”

Since then, I’ve had to do many big boy things, like work jobs that required me to be alert from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I can’t stay up late anymore. My body and my paycheck don’t allow it. Even though my default mode is to do work at night (in fact, I’m writing this blog post in the evening), I’ve had to adopt early bird habits.

But one thing I don’t do is write in the morning. If I have time available, I like to write in the afternoon or in the evening right after dinner. Unfortunately, my work schedule doesn’t allow me to set up a daily afternoon writing habit.

I realized recently that the only time I available to me every single day is at 6 a.m. This is very early for me. If I want to write at the same time every day, I’ll have to get over the early morning thing.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realize how important it is to write first thing in the morning. After all, I believe you should start your day doing your most significant and most rewarding work. If I call myself a writer, shouldn’t I write first thing in the morning? Shouldn’t it be the reason I get out of bed every day?

I’d like to adapt the “morning pages” ritual advocated by writer Julia Cameron and others. Cameron explains the process in this way:

Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. *There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages*– they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page…and then do three more pages tomorrow.

As a writing teacher, I urge my students to do freewriting exercises when they are planning or brainstorming essays. The morning pages method is like a freewrite: it’s not supposed to be a draft of your next novel (although it might lead you to the next idea). It’s not even writing at the blog post level. It’s just to create the habit and to keep writing.

I’ve decided to try this method. Why not? I’ll have to get over the morning thing, but if it’s truly important to me, I’ll survive.

I can still devote my afternoons and evenings to *real* writing and sort out all the stuff that the morning pages might help me figure out.

Finally, I leave you with a quote about inconsequential writing, in this case journal writing (which is what the morning pages method really is), from Virginia Woolf:

But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink.

[I am grateful to Maria Popova at brainpickings.org for the Virginia Woolf quote.]