How to write about your life (without upsetting friends and family)

Whether you’re a poet or problogger, you will, at times, have an instinct to write autobiographically.
As writers, we regularly follow the common piece of writing advice, to ‘write about what you know’. It’s in our nature to draw on personal experience and, in one way or another, write about our lives.

But of course, it’s almost impossible to write about our lives on a regular basis or in any depth without referring to the people around us – our friends and family.

And this can sometimes lead to problems.

Decisions, decisions

You novelists and scriptwriters will understand the difficult decisions you have to make when a character starts to resemble someone you know.

Do you plough on regardless or do you stop and think about whether what you’re writing will have any repercussions in real life?

And what about you bloggers and journalists? What you write is effectively a permanent archive of material that can be accessed at any time by pretty much anyone. That’s a lot of responsibility.

Do you stick with a good story or article no matter what, or do you run it past the people it might affect to make sure that your work won’t bring heartache later on?

Writing about your life can be a tricky business, but there are a few things you can do to make sure you don’t get yourself in an emotional tangle.

They can handle the truth

Once you’ve made the decision to write about your life in a way that might affect someone you know, be open and honest about it. More importantly, ask permission.

There’s no harm in telling that person that you’re writing about them, or that you’ve been inspired by something they’ve said or done. Most people will take it as a compliment and maybe even help you out with any research that you might need to do.

But it’s vital that you’re up front with them from the get-go. Otherwise, what you write may just cause upset later on. And by that time, it’ll be too late to do anything about it.

Be inspired don’t imitate

Another alternative is to simply use a snapshot of a person or event.

You don’t always need to go the whole hog and base an entire character on one person, or relay exact events that reflect their life and actions.

When I began writing my novel, I had no intention of using any part of my life as inspiration. But inevitably, it happened.

My lead character’s father shares many similarities with my own father, including his job, dialect and some of the phrases he uses. But he’s also a borderline alcoholic who may or may not have had an affair with his daughter-in-law’s mother.*

My character, that is. Not my Dad.

The point is, I’m never going to write a story, poem or blog article based entirely on someone I know personally. But they can still inspire me, and I can use that inspiration in a way that won’t compromise the relationship.

Write anonymously

Here are some practical examples for when you really have to write about a friend or family member, but need to protect their anonymity:

  • If you’re writing fiction, give someone a different name. Make one up. It’s obvious, I know, but worth saying.
  • If you’re writing fiction, give someone a different name that doesn’t sound very similar to their real name or have the same initial. Don’t laugh. It happens all the time.
  • If you’re writing non-fiction, reduce the name to an initial, so Sally becomes ‘S’ and Bob becomes ‘B’.
  • If you’re writing non-fiction, use a different name and include a disclaimer that indicates what you’ve done.

Put yourself in their shoes

Another way of looking at it is to try and put yourself in their shoes.

Read your work again. Would you like to have the article or story that you’re writing written about you? Would it hurt your feelings or jeopardise a relationship?

The old saying, ‘treat others how you would want to be treated yourself,’ is a pertinent message for writers.

With the power of words comes responsibility. Think about how your words might affect you if the shoe was on the other foot. I know that’s way too many shoe/foot analogies, but the point is a good one.

Do the write thing (sorry)

Finally, what I think is probably my most important piece of advice. If you think there might be any chance that what you’re writing will affect someone you care about, don’t do it.

It’s just not worth it.

The written word is our passion. For many of us, it’s our occupation too. But it will never be more important than the people we love.

When your work starts to have a negative impact on the people around you – your friends and family – it’s time to find a new subject and move on to the next idea.

* It’s less complicated than it sounds, I promise.

Why you should always stay proud of your writing

This post came about after a brief email exchange last week with Richard Crowther, a fellow wordsmith and regular commenter on Write for Your Life.
As an afterthought to a more general conversation, we were both derogatory about some of our old writing. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but later I found myself questioning what I’d said.

Correct me in the comments section if you disagree, but I think it’s fair to say that most writers, at some point, feel either embarrassed by or somehow divorced from a lot of their earlier work.

As writers, we have a tendency, a need almost, to think that whatever we’re currently writing is our best work yet.

And that stands to reason, of course. Because although the very best writing requires that special indescribable something, essentially, it’s still a craft. It’s something that we can work on.

The more we write, the better we get.

Repeat after me: I write, and I’m proud

So, if we accept that practice makes, well, not perfect, but for improvement and progression, then are we right to feel a little red-faced about the things we wrote, say, a couple of years ago?

Well, of course not. And here’s why:

  • Old writing gives you a benchmark
    When you revisit old work, you need to make a simple distinction, and then use it to your advantage. If you think it’s awful, acknowledge it for what it was and use it to measure how far you’ve come, and where you can still improve. If it’s wonderful and chest-beatingly brilliant, you know the standard you’ve set and need to strive for and surpass from now on.
  • All writing is of its time
    Can’t bear to reread your collection of heartbreak-laden poetry that you wrote following the split from your first boyfriend or girlfriend? Grit your teeth and go and read it immediately. Remember, that’s how you felt at the time and by writing those poems, you’ve become better at your craft. Don’t bin your work. Assign it to a certain time in your life, stick your chest out and be proud.
  • All writers are in the same boat
    If you think you’re the only one to look back at old work and cringe, you’re wrong. We all do it and it’s just part of the writing process. No one writes perfectly at the first attempt. Novels, poems, scripts, articles and blog posts – they all go through several drafts. Accept it. Be proud of your commitment to getting it right.

As a little treat, I’ve managed to dig out the first poem I ever wrote. It’s terrible, of course (I have long given up writing poetry). But I’m terribly proud of it, because to this day I remember my English teacher’s kind feedback. And then my decision to write another poem. And another.

You can download He is the Pint Glass here and now. Don’t laugh.

Share your thoughts

Do you look back in anger or mild embarrassment when you think about your past scribblings? Are you a serial shredder or do you keep all your old writing for prosperity? Let us know in the comments section.

Writing goals 2: Short-term targets, long-term goals

The first post in Write for Your Life’s ongoing ‘Writing goals’ series encouraged you to aim high, but manage your expectations. Now, it’s time to look at how you approach your writing once you’ve decided what you want to achieve.
I’ll use my own writing as an example. It took me a long time to write my novel, partly because I also had to hold down a full-time job, but also because it took me the best part of a year to work out how to set achievable goals.

The problem was, I never did set myself goals, as such. Instead, I had just one singular objective: write a novel. That’s all I wanted to do. It’s what I was working towards.

In 2005, with 10,000 words under my belt and some handsome feedback, I took two months sabbatical from work and moved to a friend’s house in Bath. My goal was to complete my novel, in peace, while I was there.

On leaving Bath, I had just 24,000 words. I would go on to write another 35,000 over the next two years before finally achieving my ‘goal’.

The reason I wrote so little in that time was a lack of planning and foresight. I had a goal, but no idea about how I was going to reach it.

What I needed, was short-term targets.

Writing targets and writing goals

Okay, so what’s the difference between a target and a goal? Here are a couple of relevant definitions from

Target: a goal to be reached.

Goal: the result or achievement toward which effort is directed; aim; end.

So yes, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. A target and a goal is pretty much the same thing. Well, okay, they’re definitely the same thing.

Actually, that doesn’t matter, because it’s what goes on in your brainbox that counts. It’s you who defines what a target is and what a goal is.

This is how it works for me:

A goal is a long-term project with a definite ending or result to aim for, such as completing a novel. A short-term target is an event or milestone that seems achievable and has a clearer time-scale, such as completing a chapter.

A goal, therefore, is made up of a series of targets.

The dictionary might not recognise a difference between goals and targets, but you can. Truth is, the words themselves are irrelevant. You can call them what you want. If it’s easier, or just more fun, you can call your targets bananas and your goal a fruit salad and no one’s going to stop you.

The important thing is to think short-term to achieve your long-term objective.

Step by step by step by step

There are obvious advantages to working with short-term targets. When I was in Bath, without realising it, I put myself under enormous pressure to write.

I wanted to finish my novel so much, that I didn’t think clearly and my creativity dried up. Instead of waking up each day and setting myself a target of, say, 1000 words, I simply got frustrated at my lack of progress towards ‘the end’.

By setting short-term targets, you adjust your mental approach to your writing and gain more freedom by focusing your energy on what you’re doing in the here and now.

And although my example is something very long-term, writing a novel, the theory works for shorter pieces of writing too.

For instance, I’ve just spent the best part of a month on a copywriting job that saw me and a team of writers craft around 200 case studies in pretty quick time.

It was a frantic process with tight deadlines. A case study was between 350 and 380 words. To make sure I got the work done, I forced myself to break each case study down in to paragraphs – physically and mentally.

I knew that if I started thinking, ‘Arrrgghhh, I’ve got to research and write all this in an hour,’ I wouldn’t get it done. So I took each case study one paragraph at a time, working step-by-step towards a whole (or goal (or fruit salad!)).


So, short-term targets help you achieve long-term goals because they give you focus and help you adjust your mental approach to your writing. Lovely stuff.

However, I think there’s also another benefit that’s equally, if not more important.

To go back to my novel, once I started working short-term, I was able to better understand what my long-term goal actually was. I could appreciate the task more. I had respect for it.

When you approach any meaty writing project, you never exactly know what you’re letting yourself in for. All manner of things can happen along the way: writer’s block, lack of motivation, pregnancy. I had problems with at least two of these things.

In terms of time, long-term goals are often subject to change. If you don’t have short-term targets, you can end up losing your way and find yourself forgetting what it is you’re aiming for.

By approaching a project as a step-by-step process, you can manage it more effectively. You can recognise patterns in your writing and predict where you’ll be at any given point in the project’s timeline.

Essentially, short-term targets allow you to manage your writing, so that your writing doesn’t manage you.

Share and share alike

So now you know how useless I used to be and how unrealistic my goals were, it’s time to tell us your objective-setting experiences.

Can you work long-term without short-term targets? Do you gave an ingenious technique that allows you to structure your workflow? Are you a bit confused by the fruit salad bit?

How Twitter can help you improve, market and publish your creative writing

There seems to be an awful lot of hoo-hah about Twitter at the moment.
I first set up my Twitter account a couple of years ago and quickly abandoned it, thinking it a twaddlesome alternative to text messages.

Well, I don’t mind admitting, I was wrong. For those of you who have done a similar thing, try reading Joanna Young’s recent post on why it’s worth sticking with Twitter, over at Confident Writing.

I went back to my Twitter account when I launched Write for Your Life. Since then, I’ve come to understand Twitter’s ability to provide access to all manner of people who are either writing, interested in writing or writing about writing.

Not all, but there are many creative writers who might consider a platform like Twitter to be counter-productive. They might also think it a place for journos, bloggers and beatniks, but not, in their fictional words, serious writers.

It’s nonsense. All writing is serious, now more than ever before. Creative writers need to start taking the bull by the horns and realise that in today’s world, there’s more to writing than simply the act itself.

At the moment, Twitter is ‘the thing’. How long that lasts is irrelevant. As a writer, you can harness its power right here, right now.

Meet other writers

This has to be the number one reason why you should use Twitter if you’re a creative writer.

Writing can be a lonely process at times. There are plenty of writing groups, courses and spoken word events out there, but they can be hit and miss and don’t suit everyone. However, all writers need support and advice at some point, and Twitter is an absolute goldmine.

Imagine a huge, and I mean truly massive, network of writers who share similar passions and interests, and are willing to share their wisdom and experience. Well, that’s Twitter.

If you want to meet and share ideas with fellow writers who are going through the same highs and lows as you are, sign up now.

Make contacts in the publishing industry

Maria Schneider recently posted a list of good publishing industry people to follow on Twitter, over at Editor Unleashed. High Spot Inc also posted a directory of book trade folks who are using Twitter.

Together, these lists cover the full range of publishing types, from literary agents and publishers to libraries and print suppliers. These people are right there, on Twitter. They are online and directly engaging with writers, every single day.

Let me say that again.

Online, people in the publishing industry, including literary agents and publishing houses, are interacting with writers. An industry that for so many years has seemed closed off, is finally opening up. It has to. The world’s gone digital and they’re rushing to catch up.

Make the most if it. Get a Twitter account and follow people and organisations relevant to your writing. I’m not saying send a quick message to Bloomsbury saying, ‘Wanna publish my novel?’ and you’ll end up with a six-figure book deal. Of course not.

What I’m saying is, through Twitter you finally have a chance to communicate and create a dialogue with the industry. Get involved. Chat to people. Watch trends. It’s all happening and it’s happening now. Like never before.

Promote and market your writing

Perhaps the main reason Twitter has taken off is because it provides a quick and dirty route to promoting your work, whatever that may be.

For example, as soon as I hit publish on this post, I’ll Tweet my near-300 followers (woohoo!) and tell them about it. That’s near-300 people who might decide to click on the link I give them and find themselves right here, on Write for Your Life. And if that’s you, right now, may I welcome you with a quick, ‘Cooeeee!’

But this is a blog I’m promoting, a format that relies on online marketing and social networking. How can a creative writer, whose work is (usually) in a very tangible and offline format, use Twitter to market their work?

Well, first, see my previous points on meeting writers and making contacts in the industry. These people and organisations are a good place to start if you want to tell relevant people that you’ve got a poetry collection coming out soon, or you’ve been signed by a literary agency.

But Twitter can also give you access to potential readers. You know, the general public. Particularly if your writing is in a specific genre or covers a certain subject.

For example, if you’ve written a novel that revolves around, I dunno, basketball, you can follow, chat with and mention your work to people who like to shoot the ol’ hoops. Or if you write erotic fiction, say, Twitter can give you access to, well, people who read erotic fiction. It’s that simple.

In an economic climate where writers are expected more and more to take on the responsibility of marketing their work, Twitter is an excellent tool for reaching out to your audience.

For more information on how to promote your writing on Twitter, I heartily recommend ‘Using Twitter for Book Marketing‘, a post on Self-publishing Review.

Publish extracts of your writing

There are plenty of writers out there who are using Twitter as a publishing platform in itself. Sometimes it’s for a bit of fun, such as Copyblogger’s recent haiku competition, which ludicrously, I didn’t win.

Competitions like this and other attempts at 140-character creativity tend to involve writing something from scratch. There are Twitter novels, Twitter poems and many other methods for using the Twitter format to create something new. Quite exciting, really.

But what if you want to publish an existing piece of writing that doesn’t necessarily sit easily with the 140-character format?

Well, poems are made up of lines and stories are made up of sentences. If you occasionally throw in the odd choice quote from your writing, it can help you a) market you work, and b) express your personality as a writer. It doesn’t matter if it’s completely out of context, so long as it’s, you know, thought-provoking.

Here’s a potential tweet of mine:

From the start of my novel: Benny paints pictures with his eyes closed.

Again, I’m not saying that publishing extracts on Twitter will bring you fame and fortune, just that it can add to you experience as a writer.

Jude Calvert-Toulmin is a regular in the comments section on this blog. She’s been tweeting extracts from her work and has even set up an entire Twitter account dedicated to her novel.

Create a virtual notepad

Finally, here’s a suggestion for those writers who consider Twitter a social networking time drain and nothing more than a chance to waffle our lives away.

Truth is, if you have a Twitter account, you don’t actually have to follow, be followed by, or communicate with anyone whatsoever. You have that option. It’s in the settings.

And what would that leave you with? Well, it would leave you with a single web page that you can post short messages to from your desktop, web browser or mobile phone at any time of the day or night.

That’s a virtual notepad, right there. A quick, easy-to-use space to store your thoughts and ideas.

Personally, I’m all for carrying an actual notepad, with pages and everything. But sometimes it simply isn’t to hand and I need to find somewhere else to track my thoughts.

And really, that fits Twitter’s remit perfectly.

Where do I start with Twitter?

Well, first of all, head over to the Twitter homepage and set up your account. Then, for more technical information about the ins and outs of using Twitter, Darren Rowse’s TwiTip is a great place to go.

After that, start following people with similar interests and if you have a problem, ask your new found cyber-friends!

Share, share and share some more

So there we go, a few ways in which creative writers can use and benefit from Twitter. Over to you.

Has Twitter had an effect on your creative writing? Have you seen any novel (pun very much intended) ways that people have used Twitter to market or talk about their writing? Or is Twitter just a great big waste of time?

What do you keep in your writer’s tool belt?

Guest post by Manuela Boyle
I never thought I’d say this, but I envy plumbers.

They have a set of tools they need to do their job well, all shiny and useful, and they often wear them on their person, as if to say ‘I’m a plumber, I’m kitted out, and ready for work’.

If I could buy a writer’s tool belt, I would. It would probably be utilitarian in look and feel, made from thick red canvas, and have my initials embroidered on it in gold thread. In it, I’d keep the tools of my trade. Which, of course, will vary from writer to writer, but I’m sure you’ll see some tools on the list that I’m about to share with you that you recognise.

Whatever floats your boat

A word of warning before we go any further: sometimes our tool belt contains essential items which propel our writing forward, help us when we get a bit stuck, and are fundamental to the act of writing.

Lurking in there also are crutches… tools we don’t want to throw away because they make us feel comfy and safe, but can be bad for us and actually get in the way of writing.

My list contains both, ‘cos I’m only human. See if you can tell which is which…

  1. Thesaurus
    Sylvia Plath knew the power of the thesaurus. How else do you think she found out about all those bonkers words she routinely sprinkled into her poetry, like arsenic on a freshly-baked cake? A thesaurus is a writer’s friend, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. Sometimes you’ll find a new word in there you never heard before, or exactly the word you needed to make a line of poetry scan. I’m never without mine and I don’t think it’s cheating either. I prefer the alphabetical listing variety, dictionary-stylee. Roget and me just don’t see eye to eye.
  2. Idiom websites/reference book
    Similar to thesaurus. I’ve got my copywriting hat on now, and I must say, I spend a lot of time on English language idiom sites, looking for inspiration for a job that requires a particular copy theme. The client wants food-inspired headlines for an employee engagement initiative… so off I trundle to a food sayings or food idioms website which, granted, normally look horrible, are full of adverts and smilies, but, they give me the material I need to do the job in hand. ‘Peas in a pod’? Perfect. I intend to buy an idiom reference book very soon so my design sensibilities are no longer offended by bad websites, and of course, so I can pop it in my tool belt.
  3. Coffee
    Opinions are split on this one. I am a serious caffeine fiend, and firmly believe that I need my coffee crutch next to me to do my best work. However, there are plenty of writers out there who subscribe to the Glengarry Glenross school of thinking that ‘Coffee’s for closers’. Hot drink making can be a distraction from your work, a way out of a difficult sentence or section, a procrastination, or a reward that comes too early. The next time you think ‘this is really hard, I’ll put the kettle on’, think again – are you putting off the inevitable? Alternatively, ask someone else to make that cuppa for you.
  4. Cigarettes
    I can hear the boos from the back of the hall. Less intrusive than coffee, but clearly, a whole bunch of wrongs in the long run, fags are my best and worst writing crutch. I smoke when nothing’s happening on the page, smoke when something is… even writing about it is making me want one now. Yes, sadly, I’m a paid-up follower of the Hunter S Thompson smoke-while-you-work philosophy. There’s no doubt, cigarettes can affect your focus, distract you from your writing, and yet, give you the space for that little by-yourself meeting you sometimes need to turn a corner.  I realise I’ve not reached a conclusion on this one, *coughs*. Let’s move on.
  5. Word count tool
    Again, a writing tool that’s good for some and bad for others. I once had the good fortune to ask Will Self for his top writing tips, and he was very down on the word count tool. Likening it to the devil’s spawn for writers, he told me to never check word count of what I was writing until the end of my writing session. It’s a false reassurance, something else to check that gets in the way of the act itself. And yet there have been times checking word count has been my personal cheerleader, waved a pom-pom at me, and said ‘you’ve done far more than you thought you had, keep going!’ But Self knows his onions, doesn’t he? I still word count though – it gives me the encouragement I need as I sit there, my computer and me, writing, lonely as a cloud.

What’s in your writer’s toolbelt?

So, that’s my writer’s tool belt. What’s in yours? Is there something that you just can’t do without when you’re writing? Do you have certain handy helping devices, healthy or otherwise? Let us know by sharing your thoughts in the comment section below.

10 turn-offs for restless writers and pen-shy procrastinators

Writers don’t get it easy. Most of us spend our working lives sat at a computer screen. The very thing that’s supposed to help us write efficiently bombards us with distractions.
But of course, it’s not just technology that keeps us from our hectic writing schedules. We’re surrounded by all manner of things that can’t wait to help us procrastinate.

Below is my list of top turn-offs for writers. Feel free to use the comments section to share your own.

(Mostly techno-) time drains for writers

Okay, so the first part of this list contains some pretty obvious turn-offs. However, they’re worth mentioning, because I’m sure we all fall into their inviting little traps from time to time. Some you may not have thought about before and the final two are, well, a little more personal and much harder to switch off. Onwards…

  1. Email
    Some people receive just a few emails a day, others get dozens. At work, I’m in the latter category and it can be a real distraction. I’ve recently taken to simply closing my email client. It’s been a revelation. Try it. You can always load it up again at lunchtime or after an hour’s worth of uninterrupted graft.
  2. Instant messaging and Twitter
    It’s good to talk. Well, it is unless you’re up against a deadline or you’re struggling to write the final scene of your script. I write in short bursts and save my Twittering for 10 minute breaks or when I’m not busy. Come on, I know it’s addictive, but turn if off!
  3. Mobile phone
    Obviously, if your wife’s eight months and three weeks pregnant, or you’re waiting for an urgent call from your literary agent, don’t turn off your mobile phone. However, if you’re not expecting anything drastic to happen, and you want a little uninterrupted time alone, just you and your keyboard, get it switched off.
  4. Music
    A lot of people write to music and swear by its ability to relax and inspire. Indeed, I will often have my headphones on when I’m doing more run of the mill sort of work. You know, head down, churn-it-out stuff. But if it’s anything that requires a little more brain power, I turn off my iTunes and concentrate. If your music is any way distracting, turn it off.
  5. Television
    Come on, we’ve all done it. You’ve been meaning to write all day and are determined to get that last couple of paragraphs down, but flaming squirrels if it isn’t your favourite programme about to start on the tellybox. Here’s the truth: you can’t write and watch television at the same time. Admit defeat and put your laptop down. Or better still, turn off the TV.
  6. Spell checker
    Who uses a word processing programme that very kindly points out all your typos and misspelt words within nanoseconds of you committing such terrible deeds? I do and it can be a real pain in the doo-dars. If you’re sick of being pushed around by squiggly red and green lines, turn them off. Go on, they don’t fight back. When you’ve finished writing (in peace), turn them back on and let them do their job. On your terms.
  7. Statistics
    This is a blogger-specific entry. Goodness me, it’s tempting to refresh your blog statistics every 20 minutes, isn’t it? And no good ever comes of it, you know. Whether you’ve had an extra 10 or 10,000 page views, it makes very little difference and you could quite easily get the same information an hour later, instead of when you’re supposed be writing. Turn off your stats. Get some work done.
  8. Your computer, as in the whole thing
    These days, many writers work straight to screen. Personally, I like to make a few notes on paper (preferably) and then head for the computer. I find it quicker to type than write by hand. However, if you’re struggling for inspiration or getting distracted (see 1-5), why not reverse the process? Print out whatever you’ve done, find a dark corner and scribble your notes in the margin. Oh, and remember to take a highlighter pen – an essential tool for writers.
  9. Friends and family
    We all have responsibilities and you can’t write every second of every day, but if you need to tell everyone to shove off for a couple of hours, do it. Generally speaking, writing is a fairly solitary process. It’s not your fault. That’s just the way it is. Turn them off. Even if you can’t find the switches.
  10. Your inhibitions
    Many people argue that the only way to beat writer’s block is to just write. Write anything. Hopefully, you’ll scramble your way out of whatever mental hole you’re in and everything will be a-okay. But what about those people who procrastinate because they’re scared that what they’ll write won’t be good enough? I’ve done it. I’ve sat at my computer completely petrified to the point of, frankly, not doing anything. There really is only one thing you can do. Turn off your inhibitions – all those negative thoughts – and write. Write, write, write!

Get involved

We all have our different distractions and things we really should avoid when we’re writing. What are your turn-offs? How do you protect yourself from the ever-present lure of procrastination?

Writing goals 1: Don’t expect the unexpected

A new year has arrived and us writers have been pondering over our plans for the coming 12 months. Everyone’s been at it.
Writer Dad tells us to set achievable goals and commit to seeing them through, while Leo Babauta at Write to Done suggests 2009 as a time for expansion and new projects.

Meanwhile, Joanna Young at Confident Writing and Maria Schneider at Editor Unleashed just come out and ask us all: What are your writing goals in 2009?

Personally, I do think it’s important for writers to set goals. Apart from the obvious glee when a goal is met, they also:

  • help us structure the writing process
  • give us something tangible to aim for
  • provide useful milestones that separate projects.

So yes, clear goals are a positive thing and I’ve been setting some of my own over the last couple of weeks.

However, as writers we need to tread carefully. We have a tendency to confuse our goals and expectations. I’ve done it myself and ended up disappointed and a little red-faced. It was most unpleasant.

Writing goals versus expectations

Before I go on, I want to make one thing clear. I think all writers should aim for the stars.

If you want to write a bestselling novel, go for it. If you want to have a six-figure income as a freelance copywriter, go for it. If you want your blog to top the Technorati tables, go for it.

Heck, why not? With talent, hard work and a dollop of luck, you might just get there.

Just don’t expect it to happen. Aim for it, but don’t expect it. The moment your goals become expectations, both you and your writing risk complacency.

It’s absolutely vital that you make the distinction.

Goals are goals. They provide motivation, guidance and something to work towards. Expectations are simply about what you think you know. They serve no useful purpose. All they do is slow you down and cloud your thinking.

I write, therefore I am

The problem is, there are so many writers who fail to make the distinction. They don’t aim to succeed – they expect it.

I’ve met writers who believed that they were destined for greatness. In truth, they’d barely made it to the first rung of the literary ladder, and are probably still there.

This is what writers often forget:

If you write a novel, you’re not guaranteed publication. If you’re a freelance copywriter, you’re not guaranteed a sufficient income. If you start a blog, you’re not guaranteed a readership.

These things will not happen if you expect them to happen. They take planning, patience and a great deal of fortune.

Free your mind (with structure)!

You see, before you can go about what’s actually a very real and life-affecting process of setting goals, you need to rid yourself of all expectations.

Without expectations, you have greater freedom to write. There is less pressure because you don’t have a pre-determined idea of what you should achieve.

Setting goals can give you the structure you need to liberate your writing. Expectations can restrict you and make you feel stupid, especially if you fail to meet them.

Aim high. Expect nothing.

Share your thoughts

Okay, lecture over. Deep breath.

The second part of this double-header post will give you some practical advice for setting writing goals. There are lots of things you can do to make sure you get them right, and it’s always a worthwhile process.

In the meantime, I’d like to know your thoughts.

Have you ever been complacent through making assumptions about your work? Can you make a distinction between your writing goals and expectations?

Embrace your writing community, but don’t be scared to say ‘no’!

Writing can feel like a solitary pursuit at times.
As scribes, we often hole ourselves up for hours on end with just our imaginations and computer screens for company. It can all seem terribly unhealthy.

But it doesn’t have to be, not these days.

The internet has given writers the chance to communicate quickly and easily with other writers. Connect with real people who go through the same creative process and share the same hopes and fears.

Through blogs, groups and forums, we can log on and find comfort in the experience and knowledge of others. We are lucky.

You scratch my blog, I’ll scratch yours

Of course, I’m new to most of this. My background is in creative writing and copywriting. I’ve been part of a number of wonderful writing communities, but blogging is something different. Or so I thought.

Joanna Young, over at Confident Writing, this week asked ‘What advice would you give to new Bloggers?‘.

I was interested to see that much of the discussion focused on the idea of building communities and showing a willingness to contribute. You know, be helpful to others and they’ll be helpful right back.

The conversation was extremely helpful, but one thing struck me: blogging is just like being part of every other writing community I’ve ever known.

It’s a simple formula. You surround yourself with other writers. They read your work and give you feedback. Then you read their work and give them feedback.

The process is invaluable. It’s rewarding. It works.

But, and I’m sorry to say this, there comes a point when all writers have to say ‘No.’

Take responsibility for your writing

I don’t think I would ever have completed my novel without the help of specific people giving up their time to advise me. But that’s all they could do.

The truth is, when it comes down to it, it’s your writing that matters. Writing communities and social networks can provide a fantastic service, but they won’t write your blog, poem or press release for you.

Being part of a community is a two-way process. You can’t expect someone to proofread several pages of work for you and then tell them you’re too busy whenever they ask you to return the favour. That’s just not cricket.

However, your writing is your responsibility. It doesn’t matter how helpful you want to be, if by helping others you are jeopardising your own work, you need to use the magic word.

When is it time to say no?

All writers will have a different breaking point.

You might be a time-management machine and have the ability to juggle your various projects easily. Or, like I used to be, you might be a time-management mess who barely knows what day it is.

It doesn’t matter. There will come a time when someone asks you a favour, and you simply have to decline.

Please don’t feel bad about it.

Your writing is your passion. Your dream. Your income, maybe. It takes time and consideration to provide good quality feedback on someone’s writing. You’re allowed to say no.

For me, it’s time to say no when:

  • you’re struggling to meet deadlines
  • the quality of your writing is suffering
  • your workload is affecting your real-life relationships.

If any of these things are happening to you as a result of too much time spent helping others, you need to start saying no and focus on your own writing.

Exceptions to the rule

There are, as with most things in life, exceptions to the rule.

If your eight-year old daughter wanders into your office and asks you to help her with her homework, don’t slam the door in her face.

If your boss tells you the company may go under and asks you to work late to help out, don’t blow a raspberry and skip your way through the fire exit.

Of course, I’m not advising you to be rude to people or abandon your writing community, whether it’s on or offline. They are wonderful places filled with wonderful people, as I’m currently finding out all over again.

Sometimes, though, it pays to be selfish.

No, that’s the wrong word. It’s not selfish of you to put your writing first. In fact, it’s an occasional necessity. Always feel free to say no.

Get involved

Have you got the give-take balance right in your writing community? Has your writing ever been compromised by your desire to help others? Do you have the ability to say no?

10 things to write on in an emergency!

Once you abandon your muse and accept the fact that other commitments in your life will sometimes prevent you from writing, you can prepare for the unexpected. When an idea arrives, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, you need to be ready. The truth is, your best ideas don’t always come to you at appropriate times. I used to regularly find myself without a notepad, desperately repeating an idea in my head to make sure I remembered it. It rarely worked. Usually, I’d forget large parts of the idea. Often, I wouldn’t remember I’d had an idea at all.

This is my advice. If you get an idea, write it down. Even if it turns out to be a useless idea, you just never know. It’s better than losing what could be the foundations of an interesting piece of work.

It sounds simple, but it’s amazing how easy it is to have an idea and find yourself thoroughly unprepared.

Usually, all you need to remember is the spark. Just enough to trigger that same train of thought you stumbled upon when the idea first came to you. You don’t need half an hour and a laptop.

Write here, write now

If the idea happens to arrive when you’re in front of a computer and during some free time, then great. You can stick it in a Word document (other document types are available) and spend a couple of hours refining your thoughts.

If, as is more likely, the idea comes when you’re in a business meeting, on the toilet or bathing the kids, you’re in all kinds of trouble.

You’re going to need one of these 10 things.

A notepad

Of course, the wonderful notepad. If you haven’t got one, get one. Preferably a Moleskine. Then take it everywhere you go and you won’t have to use the rest of this list, which may be a blessing.

Post-it notes

Everyone’s favourite yellow reminding device. I usually use Post-it notes to combine and develop ideas, but they’re also great for keeping round the house. It goes idea > scribble on Post-it > stick to keyboard for later.

Your hand

Another classic. The hand is an underestimated writing surface. Not only is it convenient and easy to use, you’ll be very hard-pressed not to have it with you at all times.

Miscellaneous body parts

The problem with writing on your hand is that your idea automatically enters the public domain. So, if you’d rather not have your boss, parents or fellow train passengers reading what’s on your scrawl-ridden palms, find somewhere else on your person. I have previously written ideas on my foot, ankle and stomach. Don’t forget and have a shower.

Someone else

If points 3 and 4 don’t do it for you, try writing on someone else. Why not? How often do we say, ‘Remind me to…’ or ‘I’ve just had an idea…’ when we’re with someone? If you’re about to go into a meeting and it simply isn’t appropriate to write on yourself, write on your workmate instead. They can read it back to you later.


Nick Cernis over at Put Things Off talks about The Banana Reminder in his marvellous book, Todoodlist. He suggests writing important tasks on your morning banana to make sure you don’t forget to do them. It works. I’ve tried it. However, switch tasks for ideas and add oranges, lemons and any other fruit with a non-edible skin to your list of writing surfaces, and you’re in business. Just make sure you transfer your idea to your notepad or computer before you have your tasty teatime snack.

Beer mats

Made famous by many a lyricist, the beer mat has a reputation for being an ideal emergency writing surface, though almost exclusively for writers who frequent public houses, bars or restaurants, of course.


I get a lot of my ideas when I’m in the shower, which is most irritating. Usually, I can hold it in the think-tank (that’s my head, not part of the shower) until I get to my notepad. However, if I can feel the idea slipping away, I’ve been known to reach around the shower curtain and make a quick note in the steam on the window. Other recommended windows include frosty cars and dirty sheds.

Toilet paper

Oh come on, we’ve all been there. Ideas can strike at any time. Leave a pen in the cardboard tube, just in case. Or behind the S-bend.

The Wonderwall

Finally, an idea I’ll talk about in a later post. The Wonderwall is not related to the once well-reputed UK rock band, Oasis. It’s actually an idea we’re currently putting into action where I work. It’s very simple. We’re designating an entire wall of the office to any ideas and brainwaves we might have. That’s it.

Have an idea or suggestion about how we might work better? Write it on the wall. Of course, in your family home, you might prefer not to cover your lounge in marker pen, but there’s no reason why you can’t create a Wonderwall in your study. If you don’t want to write directly on to the wall (which I do understand), use Post-it notes. If your ideas are related, use the wall to plan and combine your notes.

What do you write on?

Have you been inspired and found yourself without something sensible to write on? What do you do in a creative emergency? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Writers, abandon your muses – they’re a work of fiction!

This first (proper) post is something of a mission statement. You see, I don’t believe in the concept of the muse. The idea is a complete myth. I mean literally, it is. Wikipedia told me so:

In Greek mythology, the Muses … embody the arts and inspire the creation process with their graces through remembered and improvised song and stage, writing, traditional music, and dance.

The muse concept is still going strong.  Writers often cite their muse, or lack of one, when they’re struggling to write. But I’m not having it.

To me, the muse is a nonsense-notion spouted by writers, artists and other creative types who want to give their procrastinating a fancy name.

Excuses, excuses

Here’s the sort of claptrap they come out with:

‘I wanted to write, but my muse deserted me.’

No, you wanted to write, but Strictly Come Dancing* was about to start and that sounded like more fun and less work.

‘I couldn’t possibly write as my muse wasn’t working.’

Rubbish. The ideas didn’t come easily, so you started thinking about what to have for lunch and whether to go downstairs for another cup of coffee.

And you know what? That’s just fine.

If your mind’s not on it or you can’t find the words, it’s okay to walk away. Don’t write. Accept that sometimes you’re not going to have the motivation or the sparkling ideas and do something else instead. Anything. So long as it’s legal.

How writing really works

Let’s get one thing clear: there’s no celestial literary overlord hovering above your brain-box, all dressed up like Big Willy Shakespeare, throwing ideas into your head via your ear holes.

The truth is, sometimes you’ll feel like writing, sometimes you won’t. One day the ideas will be there, the next you’ll feel like you haven’t a creative bone in your body. At times, you’ll have all day to write, at others you’ll go a month and not put pen to paper.

If you take nothing else from reading this blog, please remember that writing is a process. It’s almost entirely nuts and bolts, with the occasional flash of inspiration that keeps you, and your readers, coming back for more.

But here’s the important bit. That inspiration comes from you. No one else.

Those occasional moments of literary, journalistic or blogging brilliance are entirely your own. So, for crying out loud, make sure that you take the credit. Enjoy them. They’re why you write. Not to satisfy your fictional muse.

You see, the muse is nothing but a writer’s luxury. It’s a non-truth. An excuse for not getting things done or for simply trying too hard. Accept that and you’ll write more frequently and with greater freedom. I promise.

* dancing with the stars if you’re from the US and barely-famous people dancing on television if you’re from anywhere else.

Are you ready to get rid of your muse?

Do you need an ethereal being nearby to help you write effectively? Can you walk away when you’re suffering from a bout of brain-block? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.