Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Writing Truths

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Too many characters will spoil a plot.

Writing well is a skill; writing an engaging story is a talent.

You will never have enough time to write. You just have to make the most of the time you have.

A compelling plot will keep readers reading, but compelling characters will keep them rereading.

Know what to show, and know what to tell.

Reading, writing, and editing your own work is the cake but professional development, such as attending (and participating in) workshops, seminars, and conferences is the icing.

Creativity sometimes has to be managed, but it must never be stifled.

The writer’s life should consist of reading, writing, reading about writing, and writing about reading.

If you reveal everything about a character, they’re like a solved crossword puzzle.

Imitation is a form of admiration; plagiarism is not.

16 Easy Ways for Improving Your College Essay (Before Bringing it to the Writing Lab)

Beaker Beaker

I never cease to be amazed at the number of students who don’t use the Writing Lab — a free service (well, it’s included in your tuition) offered by my alma mater— especially since it doesn’t require making an appointment (which is why I hardly use the Lab at my current uni; I’m a fan of “first come, first served”).

After my first semester of community college, I ran everything by the on-campus Lab; however, I loved sending my creative pieces (for my poetry and creative writing classes) to the OWL (Online Writing Lab), as I received such thoughtful feedback. One of the pieces I submitted (“A Memoir of Mother Goose,” which has since been published on Medium) won first place in the college’s annual writing contest; the Writing Lab Supervisor helped me tighten up the structure, making it not only something I could be proud of but something that honored the people whose stories I told.

I’m the type of person who doesn’t want anyone to see my rough draft — only my polished one — and for this reason: the fewer small mistakes there are, the more likely that whoever reads my paper will catch the big mistakes. If your tutor is having to wade through too many misspellings, punctuation errors, and/or too much bad grammar, they might miss things like content and structure.

At the Writing Lab, I tutor college students (not just in English, but in history, science, and even graphic design — as they pertain to writing), I’ve noticed a lot of things students could do that would make their session even more productive and help them become better writers. I realize many hate writing, and that’s unfortunate, but to do well in school and at many jobs, you have to write capably, such as the cover letters and resumes before hire and the emails you may have to write after. 

As for college writing, here are 13 things all students should do with their paper before they come to the Writing Lab.

  • Outline your paper, on paper (not on your phone). This way, you’re not starting with a blank page. Craft your thesis and topic sentences. Once you have those and your paraphrases and/or quotations, you can structure your paper and fill in the blanks. However, if you just need help getting started, the Lab is great for that, too. After all, the Lab was where I learned how to construct an outline. Once I learned thesis statements, topic sentences, and how to break something down to the smallest of details, I was able to write any research paper. These things made me a better writer, for I learned how to structure a paper and avoid parallelism.
  • Read the story (or whatever it is) before you start writing about it. Read all your sources, highlighting and annotating as you go. This especially helps if the book is long and/or boring. Post-its are great for marking paragraphs in longer works. 
  • Bring a copy of the assignment. Just telling the tutor you have to write an essay won’t help them help you. Are you writing a reflection, a literary analysis, a research paper? Tutors need a frame of reference.
  • Run everything through spell check, even if Google Docs isn’t flagging anything. Just do it. Then, copy and paste your document into Word and run a check. Some people like the Hemingway app, but I think it sucks (even though I still use it on occasion). Maybe if it was called the Shirley Jackson app, I’d like it better; Grammarly also offers a free app. Even though I know how to spell, and everyone knows I know how to spell, it is quite embarrassing when I publish something with a misspelling, especially since a handful of my friends have English degrees.
  • Write your paper as soon as you can, so you can leave time to put your paper away for a day or two and go back at it fresh. Let it be a smelly pile of rubbish — just get it out of your head and onto the paper/screen. Take notes while in class (you don’t have to type them up, as you won’t use them all, thus saving a step); don’t just scribble what the professor says, but what other students say and what you are thinking about what they are all saying. This has been a lifesaver in my American Lit class (where I’ve only liked one of the four books we’ve read thus far).
  • Print out your paper, so you can make marks on it, which leads to the next step. 
  • Read your work aloud. I do this with every paper that comes into the Lab unless the topic is a sensitive one (we have a private room for that if need be). The eye catches grammar, punctuation, and misspellings; the ear captures more content-related elements, such as how your paper flows. One of the students I did this with was catching her mistakes as I read, and she was amazed at how much of a difference reading it aloud made. I want the students who come in to remember my advice and use it, so they won’t keep making the same mistakes (but rather, different ones).
  • Make the changes to your paper that the tutor suggested and then bring it back for another read, so he or she has a clean copy. Ideally, you will get a second (and different) set of eyes to coach you on how to improve your document and writing skills. I remember asking my supervisor why the students could only check two categories (e.g., grammar, punctuation, sentence errors, content, structure, formatting, and documentation) rather than get it all done in one sitting, and she told that students would be overwhelmed at all the changes they would have to make at once. 
  • Remove contractions (unless they’re in a direct quote). Look on the sunny side: Doing this will increase your word count. 
  • Connotation matters. For example, don’t refer to children as kids (also known as young goats). Use academic language. 
  • Be precise. Don’t use the words “thing” and “stuff.” Spell out what the “thing” is. For example, instead of saying, “Writing was her favorite thing,” say, “Writing was her favorite hobby, pastime, activity, etc.”
  • Don’t use filler words/phrases. Some examples are “very,” “really,” and “just” (the last of which I am guilty of). Rather than saying something is “very important,” say it’s “paramount.” As for phrases, “to be perfectly honest” is the one I hate the most because of course, you’re going to be perfectly honest with your reader.
  • Properly format and cite. You don’t want to lose points on something easy. If you think this stuff is silly, remember, it’s all about attention to detail. I still think of the poor lady who lost a ton of money on Wheel of Fortune for saying “Seven Swans a-Swimmin’”, cutting the g off the gerund.
  • Don’t leave empty-handed. Get handouts from the Writing Lab on the particulars that confuse you (commas seem to be everyone’s Achilles heel), and keep the ones concerning formatting and documentation on hand. Unless you write college papers all the time, you won’t remember all the nuances.
  • Remember that tutors are lifelong learners. I still have to get help with something I am unfamiliar with sometimes. I remember a professor telling me that the difference between an educated person and an uneducated one was that the former knew where to find the answer (and it’s not always Google or an algorithm).
  • Tutors will help you cite sources, but libraries will help you find them. When you find a source, copy and paste the link into a Google Doc so you can find it later. I’ve seen students who will have a great quote but will be unable to use it because they can’t find where they got it. If I’m getting my information from a book, I use bookmarks and sticky notes.

Doing these things before you go into the Lab just might make a letter grade of difference.

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Writing Truths

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Many inventions and businesses have changed the world, but the awesome thing about being a writer is that you don’t have to be an engineer for your character to invent a life-changing device or service—just like you don’t have to be an entrepreneur for your character to open his/her own business. You make the magic happen with the tapping of keys—no mathematics or business acumen required.

A setting can be as much of a character as a person. Just as people often bounce off each other or react to one another, the way a character engages with their surroundings can reveal a great deal about them (as two people can be in the same setting, and have a completely distinct perspective of it; I’ve written about my current town through the prisms of positivity and negativity, to help set the mood, or tone). Think about it: What would Gone with the Wind be without the Deep South, The Wizard of Oz without Oz?
https://sarahleastories.com/2014/02/19/daily-prompt-west-end-girls-2/

Writing for children isn’t any easier than writing for adults. It just requires a smaller word count.

Fairy tales are great because they have a beginning, middle, and end. Nothing is worse than reading a book that starts in the wrong place (e.g. too many flashbacks) or simply ends. Satisfy your readers; tell the whole tale, for stories, like life, aren’t just in the big picture but in the details. https://sarahleastories.com/2014/05/20/not-the-story-but-how-you-tell-it/

Postmodernism is a style of writing that can challenge us to challenge an “absolute truth,” be it moral, spiritual, cultural, historical, medical, et cetera.

There is nothing like good that draws people together. You don’t have to be a food critic to write about food, but writing about it does help hone one’s descriptive writing skills in the areas of taste, touch, and smell. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/04/16/poem-a-day-2016-writers-digest-challenge-16-theme-about-or-at-a-food-establishment/

Memories are made in cars, as well as homes.  They are made in parks, in museums, and on the beach.

Readers care about plots, but they care about characters more.  https://sarahleastories.com/2018/01/25/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-424-sick/

A “book within a book” should never be more interesting than the story in which the “book within a book” appears.

Writing is like a mathematical equation, except the answer doesn’t have to be exact (not everyone will get the same answer). You add and subtract scenes and characters, multiply the stakes, and can even divide the points-of-view, if you wish.

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Writing Truths

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We are unique and wonderfully self-made. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/07/23/networking-for-introverts/

For a writer, few things are what they are.  They are something more. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/12/04/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-330-theme-shopping/

Part of the meaning of life is to find meaning in the meaningless. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/02/14/our-time/

Life isn’t a film, but a series of vignettes. Just as the earth goes through phases, so do we. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/09/09/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-322-theme-10-lines-or-fewer/

Even as the Bible is the Word in the Flesh, poetry is the flesh, in words. Poetry is life distilled. https://sarahleastories.com/2017/02/02/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-382-theme-refresh/

There is beauty and symmetry in numbers. There would be no world without them: https://sarahleastories.com/2017/03/09/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-386-theme-a-one-poem/

Great lines don’t have to be attached to stories, or even poems. They can stand alone. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/02/23/thoughts-on-writing-on-books/

One thing can be many things.  https://sarahleastories.com/2014/07/25/the-gifting-tree-a-poem/

Just as no one ever reads the same book, we can all know the same person, but in a different way. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/04/29/poem-a-day-2016-writers-digest-challenge-29-theme-haphazard/

Love stories don’t have to involve romance. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/11/15/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-11-theme-animal/

 

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Writing Tips

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Write for yourself; edit for others. Write sleepy; edit rested.

Save everything. If a stanza doesn’t fit in one poem, don’t force it in. Not every piece has to be part of the same puzzle, and you already have a “springboard” for another piece.

Not all lessons are learned from life itself but rather, its imitations. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/12/29/15-life-lessons-learned-from-classic-movies/

A resume tells potential employers what you can do; a portfolio shows them. 

You will not get paid for everything you write, but everything you write that gets published (other than on your personal blog) can help build up your portfolio. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/01/15/on-journalism-my-college-writing-experience/

Writing is a way of taking the outside in and then putting it back out in a way that resonates with readers.

If you love it, chances are someone else will, too. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/04/06/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-5-theme-vegetables/

Writing is telling your story; reporting is telling their story.

We teach what we know, and share what we know with the world. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/05/28/why-i-tell-my-daughter-shes-beautiful/

Good old-fashioned storytelling with compelling characters will endure far longer than a story that is told with only a “twist ending” in mind. It’s not just about dessert but every course leading up to it.

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: On Blogging

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I started writing micropoetry when I opened a Twitter account.  A friend of mine at the time had made contact with a local philanthropist through Twitter, and so I thought it a great way to promote my writing.  However, I lost interest in what I think of as an online bathroom wall, though I saved all the micropoetry I’d written on Twitter (which is akin to a black hole) and repurposed it for my blog.  This led to #Micropoetry Mondays, just as the #novelines from my book led to #Fiction Fridays.

Scheduling posts ahead of time helps save time while keeping your blog current (so it practically runs itself). Because I knew I’d be busy this spring semester (two math classes will do that), I scheduled all my Monday and Friday posts for the year, so I would only have to create new content on Wednesdays.

Coming up with categories for your blog will help generate ideas for posts. Mine include: Homemaking/Marriage/Motherhood, Mormon Culture, Writing Prompts, et cetera. One of my personal favorites was Micropoetry Mondays, with each set of micropoems having a “theme” (such as The Lighter Side, Thanatology, and Family Dynamics). https://sarahleastories.com/2017/08/08/micropoetry-monday-mystery/

It’s better to use a high-quality (but relevant) stock photo for your blog than a low-quality image you took yourself.  That said, it is highly encouraged that you, as a blogger, learn how to take good photos.

If you’re going to “blog your book,” start a separate blog specifically for that book, using the title of the book as the website name. For example, if the name of your book is I Am Sam, your blog’s URL should be iamsam.com. Posts should be between 250 and 500 words (according to Nina Amir, who wrote about this in How to Blog Your Book), and if you can split a 500-word post into two, 250-word posts, do so.

Sharing useful information generates more traffic, for you aren’t just strengthening your brand but sharing with others the tools they need to build theirs. https://sarahleastories.com/2017/10/29/journalism-conference-notes-my-conclusion/

How-to articles are as popular as self-help books. People use the Internet for research as much as they do for entertainment. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/10/15/creative-writing-prompt-make-something-interesting/

When you’re writing a book review, you’re not just creating content for your blog, but you’re also gaining a deeper understanding of what you read as well as what you liked and didn’t liked about what you just read. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/03/31/book-review-fathers-arcane-daughter/

Providing examples of pitches or query letters can help your reader; if they find your information helpful, they’ll be coming back for more and maybe even sharing your ideas. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/07/22/100-word-pitch-to-harlequins-so-you-think-you-can-write-contest/

Writing is how the words sound; graphic design is how they look. Blogging bridges both worlds.

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Drawing from the well

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Just as we all have histories (or herstories), we have geographies. Think of every place you have ever lived, and write a story, using the location as the main character (or omniscient narrator).

I grew up in a modern-day, Tennessee Williams play. Draw upon your background, for no one can tell it like you can. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/11/10/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-7-theme-simmer-down/

We are all the product of our existences, experiences, and memories—we all have something to offer. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/03/01/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-342-theme-blank-ways-to-blank/

Just as some remember where they were during historical events, for me, every memorable book I’ve read (good and not so good) has a memory attached to it. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/02/20/influences-on-my-early-writing/

Great writers practice the art of self reflection.  
https://sarahleastories.com/2014/09/28/the-benefits-of-college-in-my-thirties/

Our life is a timeline. If you have a tough time filling in the gaps, write about the dots. https://sarahleastories.com/2016/02/04/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-339-theme-anticipation/

How did you meet those who became significant characters in the play that is your life? https://sarahleastories.com/2015/12/04/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-330-theme-shopping/

The dust of time and even the subtle shifts of our perceptions can alter our memories.  Play around with different accounts from siblings, friends, et cetera. 
https://sarahleastories.com/2015/08/06/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-317-theme-remember/

Sift through old correspondence. You might find a “found poem” or a lost memory. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/01/28/childhood-memories-pen-pals/

The best thing about writing what you know is that the research is already in your head. http://www.bryndonovan.com/2016/07/05/100-prompts-for-writing-about-yourself/

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Writing Truths

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Third-person pronouns are often a mask for the word “I,” as they allow us to invade our own privacy and air our dirty laundry without anyone knowing to whom it belongs.

Engage with other writers, but never at the expense of writing, editing, and submitting.

When we take the time to self-reflect, we pursue a path to self-actualization. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/02/11/writing-prompt-the-symbols-of-your-life/

Nonfiction is hot; creative nonfiction, even more so.

Inspiration may not always come to you; sometimes, you must seek it out: https://sarahleastories.com/2017/03/25/33-poetry-themes-&-forms-to-spark-creativity/

Be versatile in your writing, but remember, it’s the specialists that make the money.

We can live a century in a lifetime, a lifetime in a day. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/09/09/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-322-theme-10-lines-or-fewer/

You can learn as much from reading a bad book as you can from reading a good one.

Sometimes all it takes is one word: https://sarahleastories.com/2016/07/28/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-3-theme-one-word-you-might-use-to-get-someones-attention/

Reading old periodicals is like opening a time capsule. It’s the difference between watching a movie made in the fifties versus a movie made today, set in the fifties.

 

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: Writing Prompts

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Remove one abstract from the world, be it long- or short-term memory, pain, or the ability to stay in one place. Imagine a different kind of society. The differences are interesting, but how people perceive or react to them, even more so. https://sarahleastories.com/2017/11/16/writers-digest-november-poem-a-day-2017-challenge-15-theme-stranger-blank/

Take a minor character from a novel you’ve written and create a new story. If someone likes it, they might be inspired to do a little family tree research and locate its roots.

There is more to every story you write. From one novel, I’ve written a prequel, a novella, a volume of poetry, and a preface to serve as a poetry prompt. https://sarahleastories.com/2017/11/24/writers-digest-november-poem-a-day-2017-challenge-23-theme-preface/

Alternate histories are popular. What if the South had won the Civil War, what if Jesus had never been born, what if 9/11 had been thwarted? Be provocative. Imagine a world other than the one we live in.

Popular idioms can be exceptional story starters, as the origins aren’t always known. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/06/04/the-parable-of-the-owl-&-the-wheel/

Objects can be interesting—a source of mystery—but they are even more interesting if there is a story behind them. It’s like seeing a stranger and wondering about their story. We are more than what people see or even think they see.

things she carried?

Pet lovers love stories that don’t necessarily personify animals, but rather showcase how they’ve had a positive impact on their life—just for being there. https://sarahleastories.com/2017/11/08/writers-digest-november-poem-a-day-2017-challenge-8-theme-thing/

 

Summer Writing Mini-Workshop: On Journalism

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Journalism should be literal; fiction can be figurative. https://sarahleastories.com/2015/04/18/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-17-theme-swing/

If a newspaper clipping has significance for you, use it in a post to tell your side of the story. https://sarahleastories.com/2017/10/27/journalism-101/

As a former writer for a student-run newspaper, I browse old issues not just to learn history but to steal from it.

If you need to practice writing in AP (Associated Press) style, and you’re more of a creative writer, try writing mock newspaper stories for your blog based on the town and characters you’ve created.  

A couple of summers ago, I had the opportunity to write a tribute piece for the college newspaper. This kind of feature writing has helped me not only tell the stories of others better but also my own. http://ecorsair.com/iconic-professor-bill-clover-leaves-lasting-legacy/

Writing for your blog will help you tell your own stories better, writing for a newspaper, the stories of others.

Sometimes, being a writer isn’t just about writing what you know but sharing what you know. https://sarahleastories.com/2018/04/29/12-more-feature-article-ideas-for-a-college-newspaper/

Having worked for a college newspaper, I’ve found lots of inspiration from other college newspapers. The same principle applies to why you can’t be a writer without being a reader.

If you like current events, hard news articles are for you; if you like history, feature stories are for you. Both have their place in journalism. I’m always a week late and several dollars short, so the story behind the story is my cup of coffee.

Every one of us has a story. It is up to the writer to make it interesting.  Know what to quote directly and what to paraphrase. Know what facts to use and what to leave out (but still tell the truth).  Know where to start and where to end.  https://sarahleastories.com/2014/05/20/not-the-story-but-how-you-tell-it/

“How-To” writing is in demand, but unless you’re an expert, take the time to interview those experts. Do the legwork (rather than the “click work” from Google).