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“Writing Scares Me” is not the name of a book:  it’s the final option on the poll of the July 6 open forum in this series, “Which Book Got You Hooked on Reading?” (A nod of thanks here to Aravir—I borrowed the poll from one of his diaries.)

Writing does indeed scare a great many people. They hate it because they fear they aren’t good at it. They also think it will take too much time to produce even mediocre writing, let alone a good piece of work. To make writing less fearsome, I’d like to let you in on a few secrets (full disclosure—this is based on something I wrote for the people in my workgroup many years ago), and then provide a template for writing a diary for this series, “Books That Changed My Life.”

But first I’d like to share Pat Schneider’s Five Affirmations with you.  She created the Amherst Writers’ Method and teaches it to students.  

From Writing Alone and With Others: The Five Essential Affirmations.

  1. Everyone has a strong, unique voice.
  2. Everyone is born with creative genius.
  3. Writing as an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level.
  4. The teaching of craft can be done without damage to a writer's original voice or artistic self-esteem.
  5. A writer is someone who writes.

In other words—you have a perfect right to write! As an intelligent person who’s lived enough years to garner some wisdom, you may want to impart what you’ve learned to others. Your voice deserves to be heard.

Now, if you’ll follow me over the squiggle, you’ll find the secrets and the template.

There are three secrets of successful writing that most people never learn.

Secret 1

Recognize that writing involves two different personae--the creator and the critic.  Recognize also that successful writing always invokes both the creative and critical processes--BUT NOT AT THE SAME TIME!

The creator comes first.

Tip 1:  Never let the critic in until the creator has finished the first draft.

Tip 2: How do you convey complex information in understandable form?  To use this tip, you must think of the most important person in your life (the person in question should speak and understand English, which lets out your cat or dog). This tip is based on an excellent book by Ernst Jacobi, Writing at Work:  Dos, Don’ts, and How Tos (Rochelle Park, NJ:  Hayden Book Company, Inc., 1976).

Now. Tell yourself that this important person understands NOTHING at all about the subject you’re writing about (chances are that 90 percent of the time this will be true). Let’s say it’s the year 1983, and your Significant Other says, “Darling, what on earth is a personal computer?  You keep talking about them. I’ve never seen one. What is it?”

How would you explain to this person what a personal computer is?  Would you begin, “Well, honey, way back in the nineteen forties there were two guys named Mauchly and Eckert, and they begat ENIAC, which begat UNIVAC, which begat....”

No way!  Your Significant Other didn’t ask you to go into a long song-and-dance routine about the history of the mainframe computer.  Nor did he or she ask about the difference between a mainframe and a personal computer.

Your reply should have been along these lines:  “Well, honey, a personal computer is about the size of a microwave oven—that is, it’s small enough to sit on a desktop.  It has three parts—the monitor, the keyboard, and the system unit.  The monitor looks like the screen on the little 13-inch TV we gave the kids for Christmas.  The keyboard looks like a smaller version of the typewriter keyboard that you use to write letters.

The system unit looks a lot like a VCR—it’s a square box about four inches high.  With a personal computer you can do all kinds of things:  write letters, set up a household budget, balance your checkbook, and keep a lot of records—like the list you have of everybody in your family and my family:  what their hobbies are, what they like to eat when they come for dinner, and their phone numbers.”

In other words, when you need to convey complex information to someone, put it in terms that person can understand, and use examples they can relate to.  Don’t suck the person down into a bog of details. Outline the picture in black first, then shade in just enough details to let your reader get the whole picture. If there is an excruciating amount of detail that you feel it’s essential for readers to know, put it into an appendix and let your text direct them to it.

Secret 2

Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you just told ’em. When you were a kid, your third-grade English teacher told you that these were called the introduction, the “body” of the text, and the conclusion.

This involves nothing more than organizing your thoughts before you begin to write. To kick-start your writing process, think of the way your high school English teacher made you do it:  in increments.  First she made you come up with three possible topics, didn’t she?  And the next week she made you pick one of those topics.

The week after that you had to bring to class a list of three possible sources you were going to consult for the research on your term paper, and you couldn’t use the family encyclopedia as one of the sources—remember? You had to actually visit the library. Then she made you break down your topic into an outline with a beginning, middle, and end, the middle being organized to discuss several aspects of the topic, and the beginning and end serving as introduction and conclusion.

Then she made you write an abstract, didn’t she?  And the week after that you had to hand in the real bibliography, and the week after that, the introduction, right?  So by week 14 of that 16-week semester, you had no trouble writing that term paper.

So do that now…bearing in mind you have hours to do this, not weeks.

Secret 3

When the creator has finished, let the critic take over.  Recognize that in the first draft, everyone writes horribly, even good writers. Looking for good stuff in the first draft is like panning for gold--there will be a nugget or two of the good stuff in a load of…well, let’s call it sand.  You need to turn that sand into gold dust.

Your first draft will be in passive voice, riddled with clichés, and filled with misspellings, typos, and homonyms for the terms you really intended to use. Don’t beat yourself up over this!  The difference between successful writers and unsuccessful writers is that the successful ones say, “Boy, this stinks.  I’m going to fix it.”  And they do.  Then, and only then, do they pass it on to their managers or their editors.

Tips to remember in your role of critic:

Tip 1:  If you’d never heard of any of this, would YOU understand what you just wrote?

Tip 2:  C’mon, do real people talk like that?  Don’t be pompous.  Get real.

So there you have it, the three secrets of successful writing: the first is that the writer must let the creative process flow unimpeded; the second to organize your thoughts before you begin to write, and the third is that good writers edit their work before releasing it to their readership.

And now for the template for a “Books That Changed My Life” diary:

It's really easy to write a diary when you think of a book that's changed your life, because the diary consists of three main paragraphs.

In the first paragraph, all you need to do  is introduce the title of the book and the author, and mention the circumstances in which you encountered it—did you buy it, borrow it, or receive it as a gift?  How old were you? Were you still at school, or were you working?

In the second paragraph, you could provide a quote from the book, or briefly describe the contents, or tell something about the author.  If it’s a classic and has been reproduced on line as part of The Gutenberg Project, you could provide a link. Or if there’s an entry in Wikipedia about it, you could link to that.

In the third paragraph, you would state how reading the book changed your life—by making you aware of politics, or history, or seeing the world beyond your own cosmos of home, family, friends, and school, or thinking about things in a new way.

A tip:
 Instead of using the title of the book for your diary headline, you might think of a provocative question or related title. That might generate more attention than simply listing the title.  

For example, consider the June 8 diary headline by a recent diarist:  Books That Changed My Life:  “Climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  

The diarist felt this might generate more traffic to the diary than the title, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” because people have been familiar with that title for a long time and might not be moved to find out anything more about it. People often do feel moved to seek the answer to a provocative question or find out about an intriguing statement.

There should be at least these three tags:  Readers and Book Lovers, R&BLers, and Books That Changed My Life, but you can add others, depending on your subject.

In conclusion, I hope the affirmations, secrets, and template will help you not to be so scared of writing--if you are.  And now, a challenge:  I'll bet you can produce a good diary for "Books That Changed My Life" in less than an hour! Who's going to try it?

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 05:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by New Diarists and DKOMA.


Now that you have the template, will you write for "Books That Changed My Life"?

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Comment Preferences

  •  I would love to write (8+ / 0-)

    a diary for Books that changed my life.

    And excellent information thank you for sharing. I have a writing partner for some short stories and I always have to remind myself that her questions and comments make the story stronger. Though sometimes I have had to walk away from the computer before I say something I will regret. :)

    The Spice must Flow!

    by Texdude50 on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 05:21:57 AM PDT

  •  Writing does, indeed, scare me (9+ / 0-)

    but not for any of the reasons you list:

    for me, writing can too often conflate voice with ego and until I am able to recognize and navigate that distinction (it requires an inordinate amount of craftsmanship, I believe), to my own satisfaction I will cautious with my efforts.

    the partial anonymity of dk handles helps a great deal with some parts of this struggle, but it doesn't address all of it.

    Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

    by a gilas girl on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 05:26:37 AM PDT

    •  H'mm, an interesting point of view, gilas girl (7+ / 0-)

      I think I used to feel something of that when I was afraid of public speaking.  I joined a group in which I was required to speak and do you know, after my first nervous speech, I got to where I lost 95 percent of my fear.

      The breakthrough came when I realized that this group was composed of people who wished me well and wanted me to succeed.  After I realized that, I quite enjoyed public speaking.

      There was a time when women's voices were completely silenced--The Burning Times.  For centuries patriarchy has been trying to get us to shut up, even to the extent of punishing us when we don't. Faugh to that, I say!

      Hope one day you will write for us.  I'm sure you'd have something worthwhile to say.

      "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

      by Diana in NoVa on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 05:48:41 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I can attest that with Diana in NoVa (11+ / 0-)

    as your Friendly Native Guide anyone can write a diary.  "Books That Changed My Life" is a great place to jump in, get your feet wet and give writing a try.  The audience is friendly and supportive.  Snark and meta are at a minimum, if they occur at all.  Most important, you are writing about a topic that means a lot to you.  It will be easy to write passionately and genuinely.  The topic means a lot to your readers, too.  They will be open and receptive.    

    And, boy, this is a smart group of people...the discussion in the thread will be interesting and illuminating.  

    Did I mention how helpful Diana in NoVa is?  Like the perfect party hostess, she will be on hand to make sure you brought enough napkins and appetizers for everyone.  


    "When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." Dom Helder Camara

    by koosah on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 05:30:06 AM PDT

  •  I always hated parts of secret 2 (7+ / 0-)

    Not the secret itself, but that rigid way of having to hand everything in...and writing it so slowly. My brain just doesn't work like that. I always wrote it in the first week or two, shortly after the research was done, then broke down the parts the teacher wanted and handed them in on time, way after the paper was done.
    Why? Because no matter how loose I made the outline what I write doesn't stay within it, it turned out better, but it wouldn't stay within the outline,  or my bibliography would change as I wrote it, and something would come off and something else would go in, and then I'd lose points for not sticking to the outline or the handed in bibliography.
    Usually I do my pre-writing in my head after my research is done, then I put it on paper, and someone else edits it for grammar/punctuation/typos. At the most, my in the head pre-writing will go down on paper as a free writing/note taking type of thing if it's a longer piece (usually as a notepad file on my computer now).

    My problem with writing for this series is trying to pin down one book, or at least one series. Once I figure that out, I'll likely get something on 'paper' pretty quickly.

    "Madness! Total and complete madness! This never would've happened if the humans hadn't started fighting one another!" Londo Mollari

    by FloridaSNMOM on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 05:40:33 AM PDT

    •  FloridaSNMOM, everyone has a different way to (8+ / 0-)

      write.  There's no "right way" or "wrong way."  The secret 2 thing is just a technique to nudge procrastinators.

      Believe me, the way you write works for you and the final product will work for everyone else, too.

      I always used to sneer when I'd open a writer's magazine in which some published writer or other would trill, "I can't write anything on a soulless, technological device like a computer. I have to write slowly, using a special brand of ink in my fountain pen, on yellow fool's cap paper."

      Writer No. 2 would chime in with, "I can't write on anything so 'manufactured' as special ink and lined yellow paper! I write on papyrus that I've pounded from reeds and the ink I use comes from inkberries I find in the woods. I also use goosefeather quills to write with--I sharpen them myself."

      Writer No. 3, not to be outdone, would muscle in with, "Well, I don't bother with any of that stuff!  I bite off the tip of my finger and write IN BLOOD on my own SKIN!"

      It's all a load of old codswallop.  It doesn't matter WHAT you write on or with--what matters is the result. Do people want to read it?  Is it publishable?  Is it good?

      Same with your writing method, FloridaSNMOM.  It doesn't matter how you do it, it's what you produce.  

      Write on!

      "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

      by Diana in NoVa on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 05:59:18 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I agree.. (6+ / 0-)

        It just always seemed odd to me that I still had to turn in all that stuff, even when it was useless and didn't work for me, through high school. I also don't think it's conducive to encouraging creative writing, or writing in general to take points off when the final product differs from an outline supposedly written several weeks before. At that point writing should still be evolving and solidifying into the final draft, and sometimes what you think will work in the beginning just.. doesn't.
        I was stubborn enough to do it my way as early as 4th or 5th grade. Of course that's also when I started writing for pleasure, rather than just for school.
        Now if only I can narrow down my book choice... I may have to get a new copy of one or two of them and reread them for this...

        "Madness! Total and complete madness! This never would've happened if the humans hadn't started fighting one another!" Londo Mollari

        by FloridaSNMOM on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 06:11:43 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Great and USEFUL diary, Diana (9+ / 0-)

    Republished to New Diarists, in fact.  It would get me to write a BTCML diary if I hadn't already written one! I use some of these rules in my classroom when I explain how to write a paper (sorry, FloridaSNMom, #2 in particular helps my students focus) and it doesn't hurt to refresh yourself on them. Hotlisting as well for that reason.

    -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

    by Dave in Northridge on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 06:26:41 AM PDT

  •  I used to do a lot of writing (3+ / 0-)

    but haven't done much for the last 5 years.

    Shop Liberally this holiday season at Kos Katalog

    by JamieG from Md on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 09:16:39 AM PDT

    •  No time like the present, Jamie G.! :) (4+ / 0-)

      Did you ever read a book that made you change the way you view the people in your family?  I once read a book called Housekeeping that drove me crazy. I felt that someone had known one of my grandmothers and written a novel about her.

      It did have the effect of making me more sympathetic to her, though.  I was able to recognize that although she may have appeared to be a fruitcake, she was a soul in pain.  I now wish I had paid more attention to her when she was alive.

      Once, at a Samhain supper, I told the others around the table about my grandmother and her unusual, gypsy-like travels, and we all lifted our glasses in a toast to her departed spirit.  "To Gladys!" we cried.

      She didn't leave any writings behind, so I have no clue as to the workings of her mind.  That's one of the reasons I keep a journal now.

      Keeping a journal is a good way to jump-start a writing habit!

      "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

      by Diana in NoVa on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 11:36:08 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  No Secrets Here. No Fear, Either (6+ / 0-)

    I have a very simple approach to writing.  It's like a bodily function to me.  I'm not afraid to perform any of those, so with that mind set, I proceed.

    I'm a great fan of my own writing (talk about EGO!) when it provokes a chuckle as I'm setting words to e-paper.  [This happens rarely enough that I stick to it, hoping this time the trick may happen.]  Sometimes I read ancient diaries I've written for DKos and have to admit, I don't "hear" myself in them; they have become disembodied bodily functions, if you will.  I don't recognize them as my work, but as the work of anyone but me.

    What's my method you ask?  As promised -- very simple.  Only two steps.

    1. First I "vomit on the page."  I write down whatever comes to mind, not thinking about effective order, logical development, or writing rules.  This is where I allow myself free rein and have fun.  If I'm not in the mood for this kind of fun, I don't write.

    2. Then I "clean up the mess."  In short, I edit.  Repeatedly.  Shorten, move stuff around, insert and delete words, restructure sentences, rethink arguments.  Check that I'm following the writing rules - then break them.  Make it sound good to my inner ear.  But not always.  Sometimes I leave in what I consider flaws.  I'm quirky that way.

    That's it.  Hard to be afraid of one's own bodily functions, no?  Therefore, hard to be afraid of writing.


    If only I could figure out if a book ever changed my life.  Whenever I read the diaries in this series, I'm so impressed by the epiphanies people describe, the powerful impact books have had on them, and the journeys of insight that R&BLers have undergone.

    I'm not worthy.

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 09:24:47 AM PDT

    •  Of course you're worthy, Limelite! (5+ / 0-)

      Problem is, you've probably read so many books in your life that it's no longer possible to tell exactly which one or ones changed your thinking.  I don't know how much you reread, but if you do, you may find yourself recognizing something in a book you read long ago that really had an impact on the way you view the world.

      If you can think of such a book, we'd love to have a diary from you!

      "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

      by Diana in NoVa on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 11:27:52 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  This is the problem I have... (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        nomandates, Limelite

        I've read so many books over my life, picking out which one had a great effect is... difficult. I can think of some authors who've had a greater effect, but individual books.... that's tougher.

        "Madness! Total and complete madness! This never would've happened if the humans hadn't started fighting one another!" Londo Mollari

        by FloridaSNMOM on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 01:20:25 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  I will take another slot... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Diana in NoVa, nomandates

    Whenever you have one available Diana :)

    “ go to a dance with a guy who has all the personality of a serial killer mixed with a sponge.” ― J.A. Beard

    by Caedy on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 03:12:49 PM PDT

    •  Caedy, that's wonderful! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      How about August 31?  That will round out August very nicely.

      Thank you for offering. I'll kosmail you later in case you don't see this comment on your comment.

      "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

      by Diana in NoVa on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 04:49:19 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I can do that... (0+ / 0-)

        August 31st works.  I will try and get it up sometime before and tossed in the queue :)

        “ go to a dance with a guy who has all the personality of a serial killer mixed with a sponge.” ― J.A. Beard

        by Caedy on Sat Aug 11, 2012 at 05:58:39 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

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