Be the Boss of Your Punctuation

be the boss of your punctuation

 

As you write, you likely hear your English teacher’s voice in your head, constantly fussing at you. However, there are advantages of being out of grade school, including the freedom to play with punctuation.

Recently the Creative Penn blog posted an article titled Punctuation Without Tears: 4 Tips For Professional Punctuation, which we hope will liberate you a bit and help to turn down the volume on the bossy grammar lady in your ear.

All writers feel anxious about punctuation.

Here are my top tips for getting to grips with punctuation once and for all.

1. Forget the Old Rules

First up, forget the old rules. This might sound a bit radical, but it’s not really. Most of the old rules relate to a rather stilted, formal English, which is now long gone. Today’s English is far freer, and so is its punctuation.

Take the following example:

Vector loaded the Squid Launcher. He licked his lips with anticipation. He would show them. All of them. Tonight.

A school teacher thirty years ago would have had kittens, fulminating that the final two sentences are abominations. He or she would have scored them through with a red pencil, insisting that every sentence must have a subject and a verb.

But today — in all honesty — no one cares. There is no requirement to write in full sentences anymore, and it’s liberating. You can create great effects. Like this. Or this. Ha!

So, Tip #1 is to cleanse and declutter your mind of the old rules that once filled impenetrable grammar books. You need to know a few of the most basic principles, but the majority are now irrelevant and of historical interest only.

2. Be Creative with Your Punctuation

There are only three things you can put on a page: letters, punctuation, and spaces.

That’s not a lot, really, out of which to conjure up worlds of fiction and non-fiction.

In fact, this is such a limited group of tools that, as a writer, you need to give the same degree of creative thought to each of them. What do I mean? Well, read this:

All sorts of things get stuck in Wookie fur: duct tape, intergalactic dust, and small mammals.

And then this:

All

sorts

of things

get stuck

in Wookie fur —

duct tape

intergalactic dust

and small

mammals

The words are identical. The only difference is the punctuation and spacing, which have made the two texts radically different.

Tip #2 is to acknowledge the power of punctuation to impact the feel of your writing, and accordingly to welcome it into your creative toolkit.

Punctuation shouldn’t be an afterthought.

It’s not something to leave to a copyeditor. It’s a vital part of how you create the atmosphere in your piece.

Here’s a less extreme example. You might write ‘to be or not to be that is the question’ and leave it for an editor to sort out. He or she might then come back with:

To be or not to be: that is the question.

(Literary, but a bit cold)

To be or not to be? That is the question.

(A little more quizzical)

To be, or not to be — that is the question.

(More languid, and a touch reflective)

To be. Or not to be. That is the question.

(Modern, and mildly brutalist)

If you leave an editor to punctuate your text, you are handing over control of its mood. If, instead, you think of punctuation as a vital component of your vision, you’ll take a pride in it — in how you deploy it — and you’ll approach it with as much care as the words you choose.

3. Punctuation is your Rhythm Section

One of punctuation’s most important functions is to set the speed and feel of a piece of writing. If the text was a band, punctuation would be the rhythm section: it lays down the framework for everything, dictating the tempo and fluidity of the piece.

Look at these three sentences:

Santa Claus wanted just one thing for Christmas: revenge.

Santa Claus wanted just one thing for Christmas — revenge.

Santa Claus wanted just one thing for Christmas. Revenge.

They’re all fine. No one is going to snort or recoil at any of them. But they each feel different thanks to the punctuation mark before the final word.

So, before you start writing, think about your rhythm section.

What mood are you going for?

  • Light?
  • Airy?
  • Jazzy?
  • Solid?
  • Technical?
  • Four-to-the-floor?

You will use different punctuation for different types of writing. A book for toddlers about zombies versus Stormtroopers requires a different approach in punctuation than a step-by-step guide to DIY root canal surgery.

Each demands a distinct feel to fit convincingly into its genre.

For instance, in a simple story book you might decide to avoid brackets because they are annoying and break the flow of the tale. However, if you are writing a set of instructions for assembling furniture, they may be just the thing:

To assemble the guillotine, insert the upright case (Part A) into the long bench (Part B), then slot in the slanted blade (Part C). As always when working in your home workshop, watch your fingers. When completed, keep safely away from children and aristocrats.

Punctuation can give you all sorts of creative options for enhancing the feel of your writing. So, as well as getting stuck into the vocal and guitar melodies, think long and hard about the rhythm section. They work together, and ultimately it’s the interplay that creates the coherence of the whole.

4. Know the Horrors

So far I have recommended that you concentrate on the basics and forget a lot of the old rules, that you get creative, and that you embrace punctuation as the rhythmic foundation of your writing.

On one level I am saying you should relax and feel free to enjoy experimenting with how different punctuation can fundamentally affect and color your writing.

However, I am not suggesting you can do whatever you want. There are some fundamental principles that have to be observed.

  • Full stops (or periods) end sentences and indicate abbreviations.
  • Question marks are for direct questions.
  • Ellipses show that text is missing, a pause, or trailing off.

And so on. These are immutable functions, and you have to work with them.

Although being creative with punctuation is great, and being freed from old rules is refreshing, there are a couple of horrors that will kill a piece of writing stone dead. I’ll mention just two.

The greengrocer’s apostrophe is when someone tries to use an apostrophe to make a plural:

  • slimy cocktail’s
  • impenetrable FAQ’s

This is always, ALWAYS wrong. It looks horrific. Don’t ever do it. Language evolves and one day it might be okay. For now, however, it is absolutely not okay.

The other horror I’ll mention is the comma splice:

  • Goldilocks swung the nunchuk, she liked its weight.
  • The woodsman hated bunnies, he hated them with a Luciferian mania.

Both these examples are made of two complete sentences. Depending how adventurous you are feeling, you can separate them with a full stop (or period), a semicolon, a colon, or a dash.

But the one thing you absolutely cannot use is a comma. It’s wrong, looks wrong, and can quickly result in a manuscript going into the bin.

So, Tip #3 is to learn to spot the handful of truly painful howlers, and avoid them like the plague. We all know they can creep into writing as you are copying, pasting, deleting, and fiddling, but read over your work like a hawk. These errors make you vulnerable, and undermine the endless hours of sweat you have put into your work.

Conclusion

Now that you are firmly in the group that wants to follow modern principles and to use punctuation creatively, the final step in the programme is to learn to love punctuation as a personal and intimate part of your writing style.

Embrace it. Use it to let your personality come through, I don’t mean you should garnish every sentence with exclamation marks. You really shouldn’t. I mean you should feel free to get excited about how you use punctuation.

Try replacing commas with dashes. Try swapping out full stops (or periods) for semicolons. Get a feel for what works with each piece of your writing.

Find punctuation that reinforces the mood of what you (or one of your characters) is saying. Keep doing it. Watch how other people do it. Be inspired.

Before long, punctuation will be a source of pleasure rather than anxiety … and my work will be done.

Happy punctuating!?

Did you know that Certa offers a full editing service? If you need another set of eyes on your semicolons and em dashes, we would love to lend you our expertise. Contact us today.

How to write a book: Ten steps from a 5-time bestseller

how to write a book

Sometimes we make things harder than they are. We see a messy house, get overwhelmed and spend more time procrastinating than it actually takes to clean it. The same happens with bigger tasks like making a will, planning a family reunion or writing a sermon series. In his recent blog post, 10 Ridiculously Simple Steps for Writing a Book, five-time bestseller Jeff Goins explains how to break down the ultimate of big tasks—writing a book—into ten manageable steps.  Here is an excerpt:

As the bestselling author of five books, I can tell you without hesitation that the hardest part of a writer’s job is sitting down to do the work. Books don’t just write themselves, after all. You have to invest everything you are into creating an important piece of work.

For years, I dreamed of being a professional writer. I believed I had important things to say that the world needed to hear. But as I look back on what it really takes to become an author, I realize how different the process was from my expectations.

To begin with, you don’t just sit down to write a book. That’s not how writing works. You write a sentence, then a paragraph, then maybe if you’re lucky, an entire chapter. Writing happens in fits and starts, in bits and pieces. It’s a process.

The way you get the work done is not complicated. You take one step at a time, then another and another. As I look back on the books I’ve written, I can see how the way they were made was not as glamorous as I once thought.

How to really write a book

In this post, I’ll teach you the fundamental steps you need to write a book. I’ve worked hard to make this easy to digest and super practical, so you can start making progress.

But first, let’s look at the big picture. What does it take to write a book? It happens in three phases:

  • Beginning: You have to start writing. This sounds obvious, but it may be the most overlooked step in the process. You write a book by deciding first what you’re going to write and how you’re going to write it.
  • Staying motivated: Once you start writing, you will face self-doubt and overwhelm and a hundred other adversaries. Planning ahead for those obstacles ensures you won’t quit when they come.
  • Finishing: Nobody cares about the book that you almost wrote. We want to read the one you actually finished, which means no matter what, the thing that makes you a writer is your ability not to start a project, but to complete one.

Below are 10 ridiculously simple tips that fall under each of these three major phases. I hope they help you tackle and finish the book you dream of writing.

Phase 1: Getting started

We all have to start somewhere. With writing a book, the first phase is made up of four parts:

1. Decide what the book is about

Good writing is always about something. Write the argument of your book in a sentence, then stretch that out to a paragraph, and then to a one-page outline. After that, write a table of contents to help guide you as you write, then break each chapter into a few sections. Think of your book in terms of beginning, middle, and end. Anything more complicated will get you lost.

2. Set a daily word count goal

John Grisham began his writing career as a lawyer and new dad — in other words, he was really busy. Nonetheless, he got up an hour or two early every morning and wrote a page a day. After a couple of years, he had a novel. A page a day is only about 300 words. You don’t need to write a lot. You just need to write often. Setting a daily goal will give you something to aim for. Make it small and attainable so that you can hit your goal each day and start building momentum.

3. Set a time to work on your book every day

Consistency makes creativity easier. You need a daily deadline to do your work — that’s how you’ll finish writing a book. Feel free to take a day off, if you want, but schedule that ahead of time. Never let a deadline pass; don’t let yourself off the hook so easily. Setting a daily deadline and regular writing time will ensure that you don’t have to think about when you will write. When it’s time to write, it’s time to write.

4. Write in the same place every time

It doesn’t matter if it’s a desk or a restaurant or the kitchen table. It just needs to be different from where you do other activities. Make your writing location a special space, so that when you enter it, you’re ready to work. It should remind you of your commitment to finish this book. Again, the goal here is to not think and just start writing.

Phase 2: Doing the work

Now, it’s time to get down to business. Here, we are going to focus on the next three tips to help you get the book done:

5. Set a total word count

Begin with the end in mind. Once you’ve started writing, you need a total word count for your book. Think in terms of 10-thousand work increments and break each chapter into roughly equal lengths. Here are some general guiding principles:

  • 10,000 words = a pamphlet or business white paper. Read time = 30-60 minutes.
  • 20,000 words = short eBook or manifesto. The Communist Manifesto is an example of this, at about 18,000 words. Read time = 1-2 hours.
  • 40,000–60,000 words = standard nonfiction book / novella. The Great Gatsby is an example of this. Read time = three to four hours.
  • 60,000–80,000 words = long nonfiction book / standard-length novel. Most Malcolm Gladwell books fit in this range. Read time = four to six hours.
  • 80,000 words–100,000 words = very long nonfiction book / long novel. The Four-Hour Work Week falls in this range.
  • 100,000+ words = epic-length novel / academic book / biography. Read time = six to eight hours. The Steve Jobs biography would fit this category.

6. Give yourself weekly deadlines

You need a weekly goal. Make it a word count to keep things objective. Celebrate the progress you’ve made while still being honest about how much work is left to do. You need to have something to aim for and a way to measure yourself. This is the only way I ever get any work done: with a deadline.

7. Get early feedback

Nothing stings worse than writing a book and then having to rewrite it, because you didn’t let anyone look at it. Have a few trusted advisers to help you discern what’s worth writing. These can be friends, editors, family. Just try to find someone who will give you honest feedback early on to make sure you’re headed in the right direction.

Phase 3: Finishing

How do you know when you’re done? Short answer: you don’t. Not really. So here’s what you do to end this book-writing process well:

8. Commit to shipping

No matter what, finish the book. Set a deadline or have one set for you. Then release it to the world. Send it to the publisher, release it on Amazon, do whatever you need to do to get it in front of people. Just don’t put it in your drawer. The worst thing would be for you to quit once this thing is written. That won’t make you do your best work and it won’t allow you to share your ideas with the world.

9. Embrace failure

As you approach the end of this project, know that this will be hard and you will most certainly mess up. Just be okay with failing, and give yourself grace. That’s what will sustain you — the determination to continue, not your elusive standards of perfection.

10. Write another book

Most authors are embarrassed by their first book. I certainly was. But without that first book, you will never learn the lessons you might otherwise miss out on. So, put your work out there, fail early, and try again. This is the only way you get better. You have to practice, which means you have to keep writing.

Every writer started somewhere, and most of them started by squeezing their writing into the cracks of their daily lives. That’s how I began, and it may be where you begin, as well. The ones who make it are the ones who show up day after day. You can do the same.

Did you notice his emphasis on deadlines and a steady work schedule? One of the best ways to implement these is through partner publishing with a company like Certa. We can come alongside you to develop a workable timeline and provide the accountability needed to accomplish this important endeavor. Contact us today!

Author to Author: Advice from experienced writers

authors to authors

As a writer, you should be voraciously gleaning advice from all the experienced authors you can find. They are a perfect resource as you embark, or continue, on this writing journey. The book of Proverbs tells us that without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed. (Proverbs 15:22)

The internet is full of writing advice, so we’ve curated some of our favorite advice for authors, from authors:

1. Listen for the ping

Christian author Margaret Feinberg tells us to slow down and tune in:

Long before I wrote [The Sacred Echo] or developed the title phrase, I discovered the importance of listening for what I called, “the ping.” You hear the ping whenever you encounter the same decibel of an idea or concept in multiple situations.

Let me give you an example. I’ve been journeying with a friend enduring a painful divorce marked by betrayal. She decided to change her name—not just return to her maiden name but change her first name, too. Earlier this week she shared the meaning of her new name and how healing it has been for her.

This morning I spent time with another friend who does rescues Bichons. She explained that whenever they adopt a new dog they change the dog’s name. Why? Because an abused dog will often connect their abuse with their name. A new name helps the dog with a fresh start. I thought of my friend walking through the divorce.

Then, Revelation 2:17 came to mind:

“To the one who is victorious, I will give… that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”

The power of a new name.

I’m beginning to hear the ping. One day I will write more on this, but for now, I’m listening to expand the concept’s depth and search for fresh meaning.

If you live your life where you hit “publish” on every story and idea the day it happens, you’ll miss the hearing the ping. But if you listen for the ping your writing will become more savory and full-bodied.

2. Treat writing like the work that it is

Palestinian American poet Hala Alyan shares how she cultivated a writing routine:

…writing is a magical, fickle, infuriating creature that rarely seems to belong to me. And, yes, it is perhaps, for many of us, the most pure, simple alchemy we will ever come across.

But it is also work. It needs to be treated with respect. An idea isn’t a book. The distance between the two can be a long, solitary tundra that is only crossed by actual writing.

Everyone has their routine. For me, it’s 30 minutes a day, no more, no less. Sometimes I write those 30 minutes on the subway, sometimes at my desk, sometimes on my phone, but it’s always 30 minutes. If I miss a day, I forgive myself, but I make it up the next day. I’ve learned that writing is like going to the gym, like building any muscle. It needs consistency and, for many of us, ritual.

3. Get personal

Don’t be afraid to get personal with your reader, or as some might say, give the last 10 percent. Bestselling author Max Lucado encourages us with this advice:

Writing is a powerful medium because it’s personal. It often reaches people at a vulnerable time in their lives. If somebody comes to a church to hear me speak, he may be there because he wants to be, or he may be there because someone talked him into coming. But if an individual reads a book of mine, he has gone through the necessary steps to purchase or borrow the book. He has paid a price for this kind of communication. I am at my best in print—the effect of a book does not depend on the author’s mood; it depends on the reader’s openness to encouragement or teaching.

We challenge you this week to seek out some experienced authors, whether in person or online, to extract all the writing advice you can. Of course, at Certa Publishing, we’ve seen it all in the publishing business and we would love to offer you any resources, tools or advice you need. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Or feel free to contact us today.

Just get to the point

justgetto the point

Recently we wrote about readability. Did you run your writing through the Flesch-Kincaid test to find out the reading grade level of your work? If so, it’s likely that you found out that you were inadvertently writing above the head of the average reader. This causes readers to tune out too soon or not fully grasp your content.

So what’s the fix? Make all the longer words shorter? Of course, it’s more complex than that, but completely doable. Here are 3 readability trouble spots and how to course correct:

1. Short story long

The problem: We all have one friend, family member, or co-worker, who starts to tell a story and you think, oh boy, here we go. They can make a 2-minute story into a 20-minute rambling, bunny-trail-filled narrative that leaves the listener both bored and befuddled. Well, friend, writers can fall into the same trap. See, we don’t have the benefit of watching the reader in real-time as they trudge their way through our overly verbose writing. We can’t see them sigh, get distracted, or give up altogether. Yet we must keep this common temptation at the forefront of our mind.

The fix: In her recent post, Be Specific! How to Get to the Point in Everything You Write, Grammarly writer Joanna Cutrara offers these tips:

Use appropriate sentence length – Resist the urge to jam too many ideas or details into the same sentence. If your sentence is so long that its meaning isn’t clear or you’ve switched topics partway through, consider breaking it into two new sentences.

Avoid filler words – Cutting out filler words can make your sentences shorter and easier to understand. If your sentence works without it, you just don’t need this word.

Be precise with your words – Make your writing strong and vivid by using specific phrases, instead of ambiguous words like: thing, stuff, good, bad, pretty, and ugly. Also, avoid redundant phrases such as “unexpected surprise” or “very unique.”

2. Leave a little to the imagination

The problem: We want to be completely in control of the story, or more importantly, how the story is perceived by the reader. This leads us to write down every single thought and concept we’ve collected on our subject. It’s the equivalent of handing our toddler a coloring page that we’ve completely colored in. Yes, it may be beautiful, but we’ve robbed the child of the opportunity to participate in the project.

The fix: As writers, we must not forget that the beauty of reading is not in the words themselves, but in the place they take us in our minds. Be respectful of your readers’ imaginations by giving them a starting off point, not a boxed-in, completely detailed narrative.

A recent Freelance Writing post offered this insight:

The critical aim of writing for your readers is not to inform exhaustively, but to suggest; not to thrust upon the reader’s own vision of truth and beauty in detailed completeness, but to awaken the reader’s spirit to help him see a vision of his own. To this end we must stand steadfastly, ready to omit, to compress, to sacrifice.

3. Who are you trying to impress?

The problem: Sure, those flowery sentences or academic terms may impress your writing peers or colleagues, but your average reader may be put off by them. Unless you are writing for a highly-educated niche audience, we suggest that you tone down the professor-speak and switch to a more conversational tone.

The fix: Find someone who is a complete non-expert in the subject you write about. Ask them to read a portion of your manuscript and then summarize it for you. Were they able to truly grasp the concepts, or does it seem that most went over their head? If the latter is true, then you are writing to impress, instead of writing to inform.

In each of these scenarios, there is one person who would be an invaluable asset: an editor. At Certa we offer professional editing services. Our editors are chosen for their experience and professional standards. Their attention to detail ensures that errors are not overlooked, and adds a final polish to your book without changing your unique writing style. An editor will look through your manuscript upon submission and prepare a manuscript evaluation. They will provide you with a suggested editing level, and the rationale for the suggested level. The manuscript evaluation will also list the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript with any comments the editor has regarding it. This evaluation is free of obligation for our authors! Contact us today to take advantage of this offer.

 

The craft of storytelling

storytelling

It’s Sunday morning. Two churchgoers sit in two different services. They sing many of the same songs and here a very similar offering appeal. Even the sermon theme is the same—the story of Esther. Yet one churchgoer leaves ready for a nap and the other exits the sanctuary with his head full of thoughts, questions and new insights, eager to read the story for himself. What is the difference? The craft of storytelling.

Is storytelling really so vital?

Why does my non-fiction book need to include storytelling?

As writers, we can make the mistake of believing that our message alone is enough to attract an audience and keep their interest. Yet without the craft of storytelling, even the most researched, theologically-sound, perfectly-edited book can sit unread on the nightstand, or worse, un-purchased in the first place.

Still not convinced that storytelling is a crucial skill to acquire as a non-fiction writer? Think of the person who carried the most life-changing non-fiction message to have ever existed… Jesus. And yet, even He used stories—”parables”—to communicate this message to the masses.

How do I incorporate storytelling into non-fiction?

The next time you listen to a TED talk or sermon, pay closer attention to what grabs your attention. We’ll bet that there is one oratory tool that universally makes the audience pay attention: the personal story. When the speaker says, “Let me give you an example,” or “Let me tell you a story,” everyone in the audience perks up. In fact, when the talk is over, we’ll bet that what you remember most about it are the personal stories you heard.

This is absolutely the same for your writing. Facts, research and exposition are great, but using a story to apply that information will instantly breathe life into your message. The author who employs this technique with expert skill is Max Lucado. Consider this example from his book God Came Near:

Wide awake is Mary. My, how young she looks! Her head rests on the soft leather of Joseph’s saddle. The pain has been eclipsed by wonder. She looks into the face of the baby. Her son. Her Lord. His Majesty. At this point in history, the human being who best understands who God is and what he is doing is a teenage girl in a smelly stable. She can’t take her eyes off him. Somehow Mary knows she is holding God. So this is he. She remembers the words of the angel,
“His kingdom will never end.”

Majesty in the midst of the mundane. Holiness in the filth of sheep manure and sweat. Divinity entering the world on the floor of a stable, through the womb of a teenager and in the presence of a carpenter.

She touches the face of the infant-God. How long was your journey!

Mr. Lucado could have simply stated the facts: Mary gave birth to a baby in a stable. Instead, he uses his incredible storytelling ability to transport the reader and illustrate the scene as vividly as if it were a movie.

The basics of storytelling

Most of us are not born with Max Lucado’s gift for storytelling, however, like any skill, it can be learned. Let’s begin with the basics of a good story:

A story arc

If you look closely, all engaging stories follow a story arc, even the animated ones that parents and grandparents may find on repeat in their homes. Recently Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats shared her 22 rules of storytelling on Twitter. Rule number four stood out to us:

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

Whether your entire work is a story, or you are just including a one-paragraph testimony, take the time to follow the above story arc. Doing so helps your story flow from beginning to end, keeping the audience captive all along.

Essentials of a good story

Now that you’ve established a story arc, you can begin to improve the story through these simple adjustments:

Pay attention to setting. Just as in the Christmas story example above, the reader needs context for your narrative. Even though your focus may be on the spiritual side of a topic, don’t neglect providing a setting for your message. Consider these two examples of writing about volunteering in end-of-life care:

I sat and prayed with Mrs. Glendale, knowing that she was in her final days. I read her favorite Psalms and played the hymn playlist that I’d made for her on my Spotify account.

or

As I entered Mrs. Glendale’s room for my daily visit, I couldn’t help but notice all the photos set around—some more than 50 years old and others from just this year. Grandsons in baseball photos, a niece at her flute recital, and a gorgeous family reunion photo with four generations included. I struggled with resentment as I wondered where all of these family members were now. Did they not know that their beloved Gigi was living her last days? Why should I, a practical stranger, be the one to read her favorite Psalms? Wouldn’t she rather hear her niece play her favorite hymns on the flute, than listen to them through Spotify on my phone?

Both paragraphs give the same facts, yet the second draws you into the room, feeling what the author is feeling, and understanding the undercurrent to the situation.

Be transparent. No one wants to read a story about a flawless subject. People without imperfection come off as either intimidating or inauthentic. Show us all sides of your characters, whether they be real or fictional. The above example gives us a peek into the author’s struggle: I struggled with resentment as I wondered where all of these family members were now. Your writing doesn’t have to condone or glorify the character’s flaws, but it shouldn’t ignore them either. Being transparent allows your reader to identify with your writing and see themselves within the pages.

By creating a story arc and incorporating setting and character transparency, you will be on your way to becoming a better storyteller. At Certa Publishing, we appreciate the power of storytelling and are here to help you grow in this skill. Contact us today to see how we can partner with you.

 

4 Ways to Organize Your Writing

4 Ways to OrganizeYour Writing

Your head is full of ideas for your book or blog post. But wait! Take a deep breath and read this first. Karen Hertzberg of the Grammarly Blog shows us how attention to the organization of our writing will keep the reader’s attention and allow our message to be delivered:

No matter how well you write, no matter how carefully you proofread, your article or story can’t live up to its potential if it’s not well organized.

We all know someone who can’t tell a joke without doubling back to include some missing element that’s critical to the punchline. This happens to the best of us, but it happens less when we take a moment to organize a story in our heads before telling it.

If organizing your thoughts is essential to being known as a superb raconteur, it’s as important in written communication.

Why is organization important in writing?

When you’re preparing longform text, your goal is to make that text as easy for your reader to absorb as possible. If the reader has to double back to make sense of your article, or if it’s presented in a babbling stream of consciousness from which the reader must fish for your main points, your article will have less impact.

Fifty-five percent of visitors will read an article for 15 seconds or less before moving on. Obvious organization will make your post more skimmable, and that’s a good thing! A reader is more likely to stick around when a quick scan reveals that the information in your article is relevant.

Headings with relevant keywords can also help Google recognize critical topics in longer posts, which is better for SEO. That’s especially important if you’re writing a blog post or any other piece of content that relies on search engine traffic.

Four Great Ways to Organize Your Article

Before you begin writing, think about how you’ll structure your article or post.  What’s the clearest way to present your information? Think of yourself as a sherpa—it’s your job to guide your reader through the content. Here are four excellent ways to organize.

1. Chronologically

Developing news stories, features, human interest pieces, and anything with a historical angle can benefit from being written in chronological order, where your story moves from the earliest historical event forward. Chronological organization is also useful when you want to show the evolution of something, like the progress your company has made over the past five years or the way music has changed over the past century.

2. In Order of Importance

Journalists use the inverted pyramid technique, which puts the most critical elements of a story first and then adds supporting facts and details in order of importance. The article begins with the most newsworthy information (who, what, when, where, why, and how), builds on that with essential details, and concludes with general or background info. It works well when you’re writing a press release or presenting news.

3. Problem/Solution

Often, we go in search of an article because we’re trying to solve a problem. If the purpose of your writing is to answer specific questions for your reader, consider briefly describing each problem and then presenting your solution.

4. Numbered List

Often known as a “listicle,” numbered lists are a popular type of content. (Check out this section’s header and structure—voila!) Our brains love lists, and media outlets like BuzzFeed and its contemporaries have capitalized on their tendency to draw us in and hold our attention. If it works for your article, using a numbered list can make for easy, skimmable structure.

Organization Tips

Aside from making your article more readable, organization can make it more attractive. When a reader comes to your page and finds a visually appealing post, she’s more likely to stick around and read what you have to say about your subject.

Section headers will likely be the first things your visitor will read, so make them descriptive. Don’t forget to include relevant keywords for better SEO impact.

Easy-reading elements like bulleted or numbered lists will also send a message to the visitor that your content is easy to digest. Like it or not, our online attention spans are short, and a quick and easy bulleted list can win out over densely packed paragraphs. Summarize in digestible bites whenever that format works for your article.

Don’t forget to include things like images, pull quotes, and other supporting media. These elements bring an article to life and prevent it from looking like a wall of text.

That said, know your audience. Short and sweet isn’t always the way to go. Longform writing is gaining popularity, and things like personal essays work well with this format. But whatever approach you choose, pick a structure that makes logical sense and connects with your reader.

Do you need help structuring your writing? At Certa Publishing, we love to help authors distill their message into an organized, readable format. We are more than happy to step in, no matter where you are in the process. Contact us today!

Don’t give up on that side hustle: The story of Andy Weir, author of “The Martian”

don't give up

If you’ve ever dreamed of taking a break from your regular job in order to write, you may find it interesting that Andy Weir, author of the bestselling book The Martian, did just that… with no success. So how did he eventually write such an acclaimed novel? This excerpt of an MSNBC article explains:

If you’re looking for motivation to keep your nights-and-weekends side hustle moving forward, Andy Weir’s story of rocketing from part-time scribbler to bestselling author is sure to give you a boost.

Weir’s first book, “The Martian,” is the harrowing tale of a space pioneer who is accidentally left behind on Mars and his attempts at survival. Weir published the science fiction story in 2014 and it became a sensation: It is both a New York Times bestseller and a blockbuster big screen movie starring Matt Damon. The movie received critical acclaim and a hat tip from the space-obsessed tech billionaire Elon Musk.

 Though “The Martian” was a huge success, before the novel debuted, Weir didn’t think he could hack it as a writer. He had tried — and failed — for years. In his twenties, Weir took three years off from his career as a software engineer to try to become a writer, he tells Recode.

“I wrote a book, it wasn’t ‘The Martian,’ it didn’t get published, I couldn’t get an agent, couldn’t get any traction. Kind of the standard tale of woe that every writer has,” says Weir. “I couldn’t break in, so I figured I guess … I either don’t have what it takes or … I don’t know, but went back into the software industry.”

Weir didn’t mind writing software — he worked as a programmer for two and a half decades writing code for computer games, AOL and mobile startups — but it wasn’t his passion, either.

“I live in Silicon Valley, I grew up there, but also it’s just like I’m not a technophile. I’m not somebody who like, oh, I’ve just got to have the latest thing, the latest thing. I liked my job, I liked writing software, but it was never really this thing. It’s not like I liked talking about it at lunch, too,” says Weir.

He did, however, love writing stories, so he kept at it, despite the early failures.

“This wasn’t a sad Charlie Brown music, hang your head situation; I like writing software, but I decided that writing would just be my hobby,” Weir tells Ed Lee, Recode’s managing editor. Weir jokes that helped that at the time he had “no life,” so he could devote time to his endeavor outside of work.

“By the time I was writing ‘The Martian,’ it never occurred to me that it was publishable, and I really didn’t think it would have any mainstream appeal. I thought I was writing for this tiny little niche audience of one percenter nerds like myself who wanted all the numbers correct and the mathematical proofs in the text,” says Weir.

The scientific accuracy of “The Martian” is part of its appeal. Weir goes to great lengths to research, with scientific precision, what it would be like to travel to Mars.

“All the facts about Mars are accurate, as well as the physics of space travel the story presents. I even calculated the various orbital paths involved in the story, which required me to write my own software to track constant-thrust trajectories,” Weir says in an interview published on his own author website.

At the beginning, “The Martian” was one of three larger writing projects Weir was working on. He published them to what he admitted was an unsophisticated, bare-bones website. Each time he published a chapter he received “hundreds” of enthusiastic emails.

“I was writing all sorts of stories. I had three different serials going, and random short stories that I would post. I just kind of wrote whatever I wanted, and ‘The Martian’ was just one of the serials, but it was the one that the readers clearly liked the best, and so that helped encourage me to write it more than the others,” Weir tells Recode.

Early in his career, Weir would get emails from readers who wanted to donate money to him for his writing, but he declined. “I’m like, ‘I don’t need a donate button. I’m a computer programmer, I make a good salary, I’m fine,'” he says.

But otherwise, Weir listened to the feedback he got from his readers.

“My website leaves everything to be desired, and so I was getting emails from people saying like, ‘Hey, I loved ‘The Martian’ but I hate your website. Can you make an e-reader version that I can download and put on my e-reader?’ So I did that,” says Weir. “And then other people emailed and said like, ‘Hey, I’m glad there’s an e-reader version, but I don’t know how to download a thing from the internet and put it on my e-reader. Can you just post it to Amazon so I can just get it through their system?'”

So Weir did that, too.

“And that’s how I ultimately kind of accidentally self-published, and that started … Basically, you have to charge $1 minimum — well, actually $0.99,” says Weir. “And then so it started working its way up the bestsellers in science fiction, and that got the attention of Crown Publishing, and it got me an agent, and a movie deal.

It took Weir a long time to get his career off the ground, but once he took off, he soared.

“The movie deal and print publishing deal came within a week of each other, so I was a little shell-shocked. In fact, it was such a sudden launch in to the big leagues that I literally had a difficult time believing it. I actually worried it could all be an elaborate scam,” says Weir, in the interview published on his website. “So I guess that was my first reaction: ‘Is this really happening?!”

In fact, it was.

At Certa Publishing, we know that many of our authors have other full-time careers. We hope that this article encourages you to keep hustling on the side, to keep making the sacrifices to write and to keep pursuing what God has called you to. Do you need assistance in your writing journey? Contact us today to see how we can serve you.

Don’t let fear steal your message

don't let fear

What if you wrote your entire book without saying that thing you really wanted to say… because of fear? Fear of being too “edgy,” fear of being theologically inaccurate, or fear of offending the reader?

In his article How to Stop Fear From Kicking Your Butt and Killing Your Writing, Frank McKinley gets in our face and admonishes us to write courageously. Enjoy this excerpt:

I used to want my writing to be perfect.

I wanted every word to go perfectly with every other word. My sentences had to sparkle. My wisdom had to astound and inspire. And my prose had to captivate people and take them to new heights of motivational ecstasy.

That’s a standard higher than Mount Everest.

I couldn’t reach it, so I gave up and traded my goal for something even better.

Effectiveness.

The Trouble With Perfection

Perfection is difficult to define.

In fact, it’s impossible.

Perfect compared to what?

Who says what is perfect and what isn’t?

Since you can’t please everyone, who should you please?

Focus, focus.

You can’t help everyone. But you can help some. Why not hone in with laser-like focus and apply your talent to a particular problem for which you have a fantastically effective solution?

Fear is Kicking Your Butt

The problem is you’re afraid.

You’re afraid your work won’t be perfect, so you edit each sentence as you write it.

You don’t do that?

Thank God.

Maybe you spend more time editing than writing, thinking you can capture perfection then.

Perfection is a wily devil, isn’t it?

When you spend too much time at the editing table, you’re like I was as an artist. When I worked on a portrait, I would fill, smudge, and erase. I’d work at it with the precision of a master craftsman.

The problem is paper is made of wood.

If you were a sculptor, you’d know you can only carve off so much. There is definitely a point where you can go too far – and totally ruin an otherwise excellent piece of art.

Mess with paper too long and it starts to deteriorate.

How do you know you’ve edited your writing too much?

All the edgy stuff is so smooth, it is sleep-inducing.

You’re so afraid you’ll ruffle someone’s feathers, you hold back the very thing that will stop a reader in her tracks – your audacity.

When that happens, fear has won.

It’s time to start kicking fear’s butt.

Are you ready?

Here are five ways you can write stuff that can change the world.

Write Your Headline First

What better way to develop laser-like focus than to use your headline as a writing prompt?

If you’re going to work really hard on one sentence, make it your headline.

Make it touch a pain point people feel.

Promise a ray of hope that will make people stand up and pay attention.

Take the headline for this article: How to Keep Fear From Kicking Your Butt and Killing Your Writing

Do you want fear to kick your butt?

Of course you don’t.

Do you want your writing to [be terrible]?

No way.

“How to Keep” promises you there’s a better way.

It also hints that your way isn’t working.

If you want the pain to go away, you’ll read the whole post to find out how to do it, won’t you?

That’s effective writing.

Write a Vomit Draft

Novelists know this term.

If you’re not familiar with the term, I’m not asking you to do something gross.

A vomit draft is what you write when you send your inner critic out for a nap. You let the words flow uninhibited. No stops. No backtracking. Just happy, carefree, rant-filled writing.

Don’t stop until you’ve got it all out.

Squash every attempt to change something until every possible word that comes to mind hits the page.

When you’re exhausted, you’re done.

Edit After a Break

If you want to write stuff that makes people stand up and cheer, you need to separate writing and editing.

And I don’t mean take a five minute break.

Take a nap and forget about it.

Go to lunch.

Maybe even climb a mountain.

Separate yourself from your work long enough that your fears don’t have their way with you.

Chances are if you really let yourself go, you’ve got some meaty stuff to work with.

Clean up the prose so it sings. Your voice is unique, special, and melodious. Let your reader hear it in all its glory.

Cut the typos, awkward sentences, and needless repetition.

Then let it go.

Set a Time Limit for Everything

Have you ever had to cram for a test?

You came up with some pretty creative ways to master the material, didn’t you?

Maybe you drew pictures because you’re a visual learner.

Perhaps you set your notes to music because you know you never forget the words to your favorite song.

Or maybe you created a story that covered all the important points you needed to remember.

Whatever you did, you dug deep into your well of creativity – because if you didn’t, you were sunk.

What if you could use that same creativity to bring your writing and editing to a higher level?

All it takes is a kitchen timer.

If you write 1000 words, edit for an hour, then stop.

When you know you have a time limit, you force yourself to do what matters. That’s the key to doing your best work day after day.

If you’re in the middle of something when the time runs out, give yourself 5 minutes – after a break – to finish it.

Then you’re done.

When in Doubt, Publish Anyway

One of the best lessons I ever learned came to me at church.

It was Saturday morning. I was with 100 other men at a seminar called Born Free.

The speaker was talking about the prison our fears build for us.

Then he said a sentence that changed my life forever.

“If you ever find yourself saying, ‘I’m not sure I should have said that,’ then that’s exactly what you need to say.”

Let that sink in for a minute.

If you know you shouldn’t say something, that’s one thing.

If you’re not sure, that’s where your genius might be hiding.

Go ahead and let it out.

That edgy statement could change someone’s future.

Do you want to risk missing out on such an opportunity to make a difference?

So what if your work’s not perfect?

Publish anyway.

So what if what you wrote scares you to death?

Share it with the world.

Some will cheer. Others may gripe. Either way, you’ve done something that matters!

Unleash Your Inner Genius

You’ve just learned five powerful ways to make your writing unforgettable.

If you’ll use these techniques, you’ll have more impact, change more lives, and find more open doors for your message.

And when you feel like a fraud, you’ll have written proof that you aren’t.

There’s no better reward for any writer who’s willing to take big risks to do great work.

At Certa Publishing, we never want fear to get in the way of an author’s message. If you need someone to bounce your courageous ideas off of, we are here for that! Contact us today.

Writers, let’s not be overly romantic

Writers,Let's not be overly romantic

It seems the world of writing is full of myths. In fact, it is so common that we’ve addressed it not just once, but twice on our blog. But we see this issue arise so often that we’ve excerpted one of Michael Hyatt’s articles on the topic that we think you will find both challenging and encouraging:

At this point in my career, I’ve sold a lot of books. But I was hardly an overnight success. First came work in publishing and agenting. I learned how book sales worked—and didn’t work—well before I published a word of my own.

I want to use my experience here to puncture a thought bubble I encounter when talking with would-be writers and other creatives. I call it the Romantic View of Creativity. It’s not only dead wrong; if you fall for it, it will sabotage your success.

Wrong but Romantic

There are four main false assumptions in the Romantic View of Creativity. Here they are:

  1. The creative life is easy, if not effortless. It beats “real work,” in other words.
  2. People will seek you out. Your creative fires will just burn that bright.
  3. People will love you for your art. They will be happy to have such a rare individual in their midst.
  4. You’ll easily make a living at this. And you might even get rich!

I am not exaggerating here. I have encountered creatives and other entrepreneurs who believe one, two, or all of these things. When these assumptions prove false, they often get discouraged and stuck. Some throw in the towel and quit before they’ve accomplished anything significant.

It’s a real shame—and also unnecessary.

What Creatives Need to Hear

The opposite of the four points above is closer to the truth. This will not be easy, and there are no guarantees of success. But you shouldn’t let that stop you, because there is good news here as well. Here are four truths you need to climb the mountain.

1. REAL CREATIVITY INVOLVES SIGNIFICANT WORK

Anders Ericsson is a psychologist at Florida State University who did the research behind the “10,000 Hour Rule,” as it was slightly misreported in the popular press.

In his book Peak, Ericsson urged readers to forget the 10,000 figure and focus on the now well-documented fact that mastery in almost any field or art form is the result of practicing a specific task for a long time, often thousands of hours.

Whether you want to be a great author, musician, painter, or comedian, it takes practice. You can’t just show up and expect most people to appreciate your unrefined talent. You must put in the hard work to intentionally practice and invest in your craft.

With respect to writing books—a field I know quite well—doing the work requires you to:

  • Come up with a great idea
  • Develop a proposal
  • Find an agent
  • Shop the proposal
  • Secure a publishing contract
  • Write the book
  • Rewrite the book
  • Submit it to outside editors
  • Process their edits
  • Finalize the manuscript

It’s not easy. This all requires significant effort. Successful writers have to be incredibly disciplined to pull it off. And you’re only just getting started at this point.

2. REAL CREATIVITY REQUIRES SIGNIFICANT PROMOTION

Many years ago, an author told me, “Look, my job is to write the books. Your job is to promote them.” He was simply out of touch with reality.

Successful publishing requires that the author both write the book and assist in its promotion. I understand why many authors are uncomfortable promoting their own work, but this inclination is misguided. If you have invested the hours creating the work and really believe in it, why wouldn’t you want to get the work out to as many people as possible?

It is more important than ever to have a platform. When evaluating potential projects, the first question we asked when I was Thomas Nelson’s CEO was about the book’s content. The second question was about the author’s reach. It was rare for us to offer a contract to a new author who didn’t have a built-in audience that might buy the book.

3. REAL CREATIVITY INVITES CRITICISM

From a distance, fame looks very attractive. Famous people are endlessly praised and adored, right? Wrong. Any time your head rises above the crowd, someone is liable to take a shot at you.

It’s easy to lose perspective when folks hurl those criticisms. I can receive one hundred positive comments, yet one negative barb will throw me for a loop. I suddenly think that everyone hates me, and I am ready to quit.

So take it from a fellow criticism sufferer that what you need is not an absence of criticism but perspective. It helps to sort the criticisms as they come in into three different camps: friends, critics, and trolls.

  • Friends love you and are willing to share with you the truth, even if it hurts a little bit.
  • Critics don’t have anything personal against you; they simply disagree with you.
  • Trolls are spoiling for a fight. They attack you because something is wrong with their heart. My best advice is to ignore them. If you engage them, it only strengthens their resolve.

4. REAL CREATIVITY CAN BE PROFITABLE, WITH DELIBERATE ACTION

For some reason, artists (and even some entrepreneurs) often have an uneasy relationship with money. They undervalue their work. They sell from their heels. This prevents them from taking the steps to make it pay enough to survive and prosper.

This makes little sense. Even the Bible implies that we should not feel guilty about charging for our work. As the Apostle Paul says, “A laborer is worthy of his hire.” If it’s any good, creative work is real labor.

When you put a price on something, you create value. Art that is offered freely without charge is often disregarded. In other words, if you, as the artist, don’t think it is worth anything, why should I? This is why I don’t think giving your work away for free is good for you or for the recipient.

If you truly believe in your work, charge for it and find a way to raise your rates as your skills improve.

Don’t Be Scared

I hope that none of these truths scare off creatives who want to make a living from their talents. As truths go, these are not even that hard to swallow.

What I’m saying is don’t fall for the Romantic View of Creativity. It’s going to take practice, promotion, a thicker skin, and an eye for the bottom line. Some of these things may come easier to you than others but they ought to all be possible, if you set out to master them and keep at it.

You may not be good at these disciplines to start with, but think of it this way: How long did it take you to color in the lines, draw that bow string without squeaking, or craft the perfect opening sentence? Keep at it and you may be surprised what you achieve.

At Certa Publishing, we recognize that our authors have both strengths and weaknesses. It’s our job to come alongside you, offer resources, encouragement and the tools you need to publish your message. Contact us today to get started!

Keepers of These Oracle Words: Part two

 

keepers of these oracle words pt 2

A few weeks ago we shared some recent writing advice from bestselling Christian author Max Lucado. Today we give you the rest of The Write StuffEnjoy!

We need your writing. Pick up the pens left by Paul, John, and Luke, and write for the souls. They show us how. For example, they always delivered the bread. Have you noticed? They wrote with their lives first. They lived the message before they scribed it.

John was under fire for his faith. “. . . was in the isle that is called Patmos” (Rev.1:9 KJV). Exiled for his passion. Rome locked him up because they couldn’t shut him up. And Paul? He did his writing and thinking about God in the middle and muddle of the world. On a boat crossing the sea or in a prison cell chained to a guard. Luke, it seems, had two loves, Jesus and Theophilus. And he wrote fifty-two chapters in hopes that the latter would meet the former. They didn’t inhabit ivory towers or quarantine themselves in a world of unasked questions. “You know . . . in what manner I always lived among you,” Paul said (Acts 20:18 NKJV). Before he wrote about Christ, he lived Christ. He responded to a real world with real words. Let’s do the same.

Let your life be your first draft. Shouldn’t Christian writers be Christian writers?

Love grumpy neighbors. Feed hungry people. Help a struggling church. Pay your bills, your dues, and attention to your spouse. You’ll never write better than you live. Live with integrity.

And when it’s time to write, write with clarity. Good writing reflects clear thinking. Here’s a tip: Cherish clarity. Make it your aim to summarize the entire book in one sentence. Distill the message into a phrase, and protect it. Stand guard. Defy interlopers. No paragraph gets to play unless it contributes to the message of the book.

Follow the example of John. Jesus worked many other miracles for his disciples, and not all of them are written in this book. But these are written so that you will put your faith in Jesus ( John 20:30–31 CEV).

John self-edited. He auditioned his stories to fit the manuscript. He littered his floor with edited paragraphs. Good writers do this. They tap the Delete button and distill the writing.

They bare-bones and bare-knuckle it. They cut the fat and keep the fact. Concise (but not cute). Clear (but not shallow). Enough (but not too much). Make every word earn its place on the page. Not just once or twice, but many times. Sentences can be like just-caught fish—spunky today and stinky tomorrow.

Reread until you’ve thrown out all the stinkers. Rewrite until you have either a masterpiece or an angry publisher. Revise as long as you can. “God’s words are pure words, pure silver words refined seven times in the fires of his word-kiln” (Psalm 12:6 MSG).

Ernest Hemingway espoused rewriting: “I rise at first light . . . and I start by rereading and editing everything I have written to the point I left off. That way I go through a book I’m writing several hundred times . . . Most writers slough off the toughest but most important part of their trade—editing their stuff, honing it and honing it until it gets an edge like the bullfighter’s estoque, the killing sword.” Describing A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway said, “I had rewritten the ending thirty-nine times in manuscript and . . . worked it over thirty times in proof, trying to get it right.”

I find it helps to read the work out loud. First to myself, then to anyone who is kind enough to listen. I vary the locations of the reading. What sounds good in the study must sound good on the porch. What sounds good to me must sound good to my editors. Sure, editing hurts. So does a trip to the dentist. But someone needs to find the cavities.

Let editors do their job. Release your grip on the manuscript. A little red ink won’t hurt you. A lot of red ink might save you. My most recent manuscript was returned to me sunburned in red. It bled like raw steak. Of its fourteen chapters, thirteen needed an overhaul. I was depressed for a week. Yet the book is better because of the editors.

And isn’t that our aim? The best book possible? We need good books. We need your best book. The single . . . the lonely pastor . . . the stressed missionary— we need you to give them your best words. We need you to write.

Intending to write is not writing. Researching is not writing. Telling people you want to write is not writing. Writing is writing. Peter De Vries said, “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”

A framed quote greets me each time I sit at my desk. “You wanna write? Put your butt in that chair and sit there a long, long time.” Writing is not glamorous work.

But it is a noble work. A valued work. A worthwhile work. A holy work. “How many a man,” asked Thoreau, “has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!”

May you write such books, give birth to new eras. May you see the heavens like John, love the churches like Paul, and touch the souls like Luke. May you pick up their pens and write for the soul.

At Certa Publishing, we believe that our authors have divinely-inspired messages to share and we are committed to helping as many readers as possible have access to that message. How can we partner with you in the writing process? Contact us today!