Distractions: Don’t let Mr. Facebook and Ms. Phone keep you from your writing projects

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Vintage postcard for the Aquarium Bar in Milwaukee. “Everything in the bar is alive—fish, frogs, alligators, turtles, lizards, etc.”

The first month of the fall semester is in our rearview mirror, and it’s about time for the first big papers and projects. So I thought I would share a couple things about writing productively that I reacquainted myself with over the summer.

“The writer is the person who stays in the room.” This is from fiction writer and teacher Ron Carlson, who is currently at the University of California, Irvine. (He served on my MFA committee at Arizona State University.) This quote comes from his craft book Ron Carlson Writes a Story: From the First Glimmer of an Idea to the Final Sentence (Graywolf).

Carlson also advises writers not to stop, not even to look up a word in the dictionary or a detail online. Move forward with your draft, and only your draft. Go back and clean it up later.

If Carlson is any indication, his advice works. He has published eight books of fiction, and his stories have been included in the Best American Short Stories series, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and more.

None of this is easy. The forces pulling you away from your writing include “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Refrigerator, and oh, there in the other room is Mr. Television, and there’s Mr. Bed,” writes Carlson.

When talking with my students about distractions I add Mr. Facebook and Ms. Phone and Mesdames et Messieurs Friends who want to hang out, drift, eat, and more. Then there’s Ms. Puppy and Mr. Kitten who need your attention so viscerally they will knock your laptop to the floor after walking across the keyboard. (The eating of homework is so ’80s.)

When I ask my students to write during class, it amazes me how weak their bladders become. One or two at a time, students saunter to the bathroom. Sometimes they pass the closest restroom and opt for one farther away. I rarely sense any urgency, except that they’ve been told to write and we all know how hard that can be.

So stay in the room. Stay in the chair. Stay away from technologies that may have been designed by marketers and psychologists to pull you deeper and deeper into their thrall and further away from your own thoughts.

“[T]he Internet is the enemy of the writer’s day,” writes Carlson, and I see this in my own productivity as well as in that of my students.

Stay on task. On goal. Focus on your own thinking and your own writing. Fight for it. You’ll thank yourself later.

Review of ProWritingAid editing app: Calling in reinforcements

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The Royal Canadian Mounted Police

I’ve tested ProWritingAid, an online editing app, on nonfiction and fiction projects, and I’ve had positive results both times. I started out using the free version, which limited me to examining 500 words at a time. This meant one of my projects, at over 5,000 words, needed to be broken into 10-plus pieces.

Of the report options and filter criteria available, the following led to the most useful revision work for me:

Style—Flagged passive and hidden verbs, long subordinate clauses, and repeated sentence starts.

Overused—Noted my tendency to start sentences with –ing verbs, as in: cleaning, frowning, sitting, turning, panting, and so on. Also, reported that my writing was high on to-be verbs (was/were).

Readability—Designated paragraphs as “easy,” “slightly difficult,” or “very difficult.” I looked closely at sections underlined in red, meaning “very difficult.” As a result, I saw ways to break sentences and weed out extraneous material.

Diction—Highlighted vague and abstract words. For example, I used “would” and “about” in places calling for more precise wording.

Repeats—Underlined phrases that recur. For instance, how had I missed the repetition of the eight-word phrase “I got down on my hands and knees”? The report also identified repeats in shorter word groupings.

ProWritingAid isn’t a substitute for a human writer/editor. However, in the often solitary work of writing, revising, and editing, using the app felt like calling in reinforcements.

The app helped me focus on slow or awkward sections of my writing. The result: I trimmed several hundred words from my nonfiction project while making the language and sentences more precise. I had a similar experience when using the editing tool on a fiction project.

Note: Soon after trying the free version, I received a 50 percent discount offer from the Writer’s Digest free weekly enewsletter. I liked the app, especially with the discount, so I paid for premium access.

P.S. Just for grins, I ran a poem through ProWritingAid. The summary report gave me my first 100 percent score. Among the high points were that my vocabulary was more “dynamic” than 96 percent of the software’s users. At same time, my sentence variety was assessed as being “very low” because I used too many short sentences.

Flipping: How to apply analytical techniques to your own writing

Chicago World's Fair Looking through Morocco with the Belgian village in the background

Chicago World’s Fair: Looking through Morocco with the Belgian village in the background

Problem: You have a longish essay or shortish memoir (say, 13 single-spaced pages) that you want to revise, but you don’t know where to start.

Solution: Try flipping the techniques you probably learned in college English.

Rhetorical analysis is a mouthful and uses criteria that date back to Aristotle. The underlying concepts, however, are familiar and accessible: ethical appeals (ethos), logical appeals (logos), emotional appeals (pathos), and right time/right place (kairos).

For my English 101 and 102 students I compare rhetorical analysis to dissecting a piece of writing. While biology students dissect creatures (worms, frogs, and so on) to find and identify their parts and systems, composition classes do something similar with published texts. They look at the choices an author made and how those choices influence readers. How did or didn’t the author’s writing strategies contribute to his or her purpose?

So, let’s flip the process to figure out what you’re doing (or missing). Instead of assessing someone else’s writing, look at your own nonfiction project. How do you handle the following?

Ethical appeals (ethos)—A writer’s character, knowledge, and authority

  • Do you establish yourself as a trustworthy source? Establish your credibility or authority (such as relevant education, work, or life experience)?
  • Reveal your biases and/or unbiased (journalistic) approach?
  • Cite sources knowledgeably and reasonably? (The sources you cite may contribute to how readers perceive your credibility.)
  • Acknowledge and address opposing viewpoints fairly?

Logical appeals (logos)—A text’s sound reasoning, sense of logic, and evidence

  • Do you use sufficient, representative, and relative evidence to support your writing? (Look at the quality of your source material.)
  • Avoid assumptions and fallacies, such as comparing apples and oranges, using a “straw man” that’s easily refuted, making false analogies, and so on?
  • Employ reasonable arguments?
  • Follow a logical structure?

Emotional appeals (pathos)—A text’s connection to beliefs and values

  • Do you use emotional content legitimately and fairly?
  • Realize the emotions your words might evoke in readers? (This includes how covertly or overtly you communicate your own beliefs.)
  • Avoid oversimplifying or overdramatizing?
  • Include emotional content ethically, instead of as a tactic to shift attention?

Right time/right place (kairos)—A text’s timeliness or opportunity

  • Do you strike the right tone to address your intended audience? (For example, imagine writing to a potential employer versus your best friend.)
  • Use timely and relevant examples?
  • Adjust your text to meet the needs of your audience?
  • Consider: Why this text? Why now?

For my work-in-progress, kairos or right time/right place has been a crucial consideration. I’m writing about events that occurred alongside my first attempts at a reporting and editing career after college. Once I connected the events to my current work teaching students in a similar (if earlier) stage of life, I found what made the text timely. It stopped being simply a Woman vs. Nature story.

This, in turn, led me to consider pathos or the emotional content of the piece. My distance from the events, as well as my proximity to current college students dealing with similar issues, helped me answer what author Ron Carlson used to ask in workshops: What’s swimming under the boat? (I apologize if I’ve misquoted him, but he makes a similar point about things “under the boat” in a Newwest interview. He’s referring to fiction, but I believe his idea works for narrative nonfiction also.)

In considering other rhetorical elements I winnowed unwieldy drafts so that every detail had a purpose. I forecast how my writing choices could influence readers, and I found a conclusion with greater resonance.

This analytical process gave me a sense of intention in my revisions. I hope it does the same for you.

References: The main sources used in compiling this blog were:

 

Print vs. online: Less of a debate, more of a strategy

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In the print versus online dilemma for publishing creative works, reputation and reach have been among the issues to consider. But the lines keep blurring and (spoiler alert) online magazines are offering more than ever.

As for reputation, the online sites of print literary magazines have been viewed by some as the “lite” version, writes David H. Lynn in “Editor’s Notes: Print vs. Internet: An Ongoing Conversation,” which included poet G. C. Waldrep, in The Kenyon Review in 2009. Based on this perception, it would follow that publishing online might be seen as lower status, especially for creative writers seeking a publication record for retention, promotion, and tenure in higher education.

Since Lynn’s 2009 article, the roster and perceived quality of online literary magazines has continued to develop, whether they were linked to print journals (such as The Kenyon Review and KROnline) or solely Internet-based (such as Electric Literature).

For example, both the printed Kenyon Review (ranked No. 4) and Electric Lit (ranked No. 70 and climbing) show up in the “2017 Perpetual Folly Literary Magazine Ranking—Fiction.” This ranking for fiction is compiled annually by Clifford Garstang based on Pushcart Prize results.

Attitudes, as well as some university guidelines for promotion and tenure, have been evolving along with the literary magazine rankings. Online searches for professional development guidelines for creative writers within colleges and universities make points such as the following from the University of Wisconsin Colleges:

“Online publication has become increasingly more respectable and that trend will likely continue. There are many high-quality online markets for creative writing, run by professional editors and designers who are highly selective in the works they chose.”

These same guidelines, however, encouraged junior faculty members to “defend the validity” of publications not specifically listed among high-quality markets. In other words, the status of some journals, and especially online magazines, may be works in progress.

Research published in 2014 concluded that online literary magazines or “post-print magazines can be taken seriously…and will remain relevant,” writes Laura Dietz of Anglia Ruskin University in her article “Online versus Print: The Reputation of Literary Fiction Magazines,” which appeared in Short Fiction in Theory & Practice.

Based on her survey of 139 “authors, editors, students, reviewers, book enthusiasts and anyone else interested in the question,” Dietz predicted that influential online journals will fall into two categories:

  • “[E]stablished magazines exploiting new technology without abandoning the trappings of pre-Internet success”
  • “[N]on-charging magazines moving online specifically to take advantage of receptivity to free literature when offered digitally”

The advantages of free literary works on the Internet is an important point in the print vs. online conversation.

DC-area novelist and writer Leslie Pietrzyk blogged about this issue in 2017 when her short story “We Always Start with the Seduction” was accepted for publication by Southhampton Review Online.

“When they accepted the story for the online journal I was at first confused and then slightly irritated,” Pietrzyk writes. “But I consulted with the wise minds on Facebook which sparked a long and interesting thread about online vs. print publications. Maybe I have some residual bias toward print…but also, if this story were in print only, I would be begging you to fork out ten bucks to have a journal sent to you a week from now.”

The broader reach and access of digital content is something Lynn at The Kenyon Review also noted. “As it happens, we’ve already seen the evidence with KROnline that the potential audience on the Internet is far greater than those who read the printed journal,” he writes. Instead of reprinting content from print editions, KROnline offers content targeted toward online readers. “Evidence suggests that they are looking for shorter pieces, more timely work too, and even a little more experimental,” writes Lynn.

In addition, online publications offer features not available in print. For example, Superstition Review, an online literary magazine at Arizona State University, just completed its fourth issue with embedded audio files of authors reading their work. This is a feature Tahoma Literary Review and other publications provide as well.

Also, the Superstition Review staff is active in promoting issues and contributors (past and present) across social media platforms. Other online magazines, such as The Kenyon Review, produce podcasts, in addition to more typical blogs, contributor Q&As, and newsletters.

In the end, what has been called the “print vs. online debate” should probably transition into a “print & online strategy” for creative writers and magazines alike.