Thoughts Upon Completing an Assessment of Composition 101 Students at Three Rivers Community College

The problem lies mostly with style, not content.

It's not that the students lack good ideas, but rather that they have not yet developed the confident writing voice with which to express them. Even an essay about school uniforms can be made entertaining by a strong, unique voice.

The process by which that skill is attained is iterative and beyond the scope of any singular semester, but I think it begins with a foundational understanding of grammar and mechanics. Dry as they may seem, these are the tools with which every great piece of writing is crafted. Grammar needs to be presented not as a stuffy, boring set of conventions, but in fact the opposite: a way to artistic freedom. In the same way that a knowledge of music theory opens doors for musicians, being well-versed in grammar enables the writer to fully express himself with authority and legitimacy.

When you have mastery over the rules, you can write anything you want—and be taken seriously.

Once More Unto the Breach

My friend Richard J. Anderson has a new year's resolution:

New Years Resolutions are stupid, and almost guaranteed to fail. Yet, here I am on the last day of 2012, making a resolution, and backing it up with a big, public post on the Internet. That resolution is that I will be posting to Sanspoint every day—or at least every weekday.

For a good majority of QLE's first year, I committed to publishing every weekday. I still don't have a definitive sense of how worthwhile an endeavor that was.

Publishing every day is hard. Motivation comes and goes, and it's often difficult to detect whether or not you're wasting your time. Yeah, yeah, "writing is rewarding even if no one reads it," but that doesn't mean spending time and energy on a piece and not getting a peep in return isn't demoralizing.

To its credit, I believe daily publishing helped me establish a small reputation in my corner of the Internet. I may have even helped a few people. I also believe that, when it comes to writing, quantity begets quality, so I certainly don't regret it.

The eminent Jason Rehmus in a letter to Patrick Rhone:

Publishing a new piece each day isn't an end, but it's simply a path, maybe even just a small part of your path. Even if you don't publish one day or one week or one month, you're still traveling on the path in front of you. Choosing to write every day is a decision to set yourself in motion instead of staying still. An object in motion can change direction more easily than one at rest.

Shortly after QLE's one-year anniversary, I got a job teaching English. While it's been incredibly rewarding, it's also afforded me little time to write blog posts. I felt guilty about that for a long time, but as Jason says, it's all part of the same path. Writing or not writing—time still moves forward.

I don't believe in publishing for publishing's sake. I've written every day before; I know I can do it. But I will not allow my site, which I love, to become a source of stress because of some promise I made on the Internet.

I don't want to replace "I feel bad because I haven't written anything lately" with "I feel bad because I have to write every day."

So no, I'm not resolving to keep any sort of schedule here just yet.

That being said, I do miss the thrill of publishing and the camaraderie of my online colleagues. Thus, I am resolving to write. I resolve to write what I want, when I want, in the hopes that what comes out will be something I wanted to produce, rather than something I was obligated to come up with.

In no way do I mean to discredit guys like Patrick and Richard. They're both far more brilliant writers than I, and I have no doubt they'll produce quality insight on a daily basis. I look forward to reading it, and you should too.

Publishing every day is something every writer should consider at some point. I did it, and it was rewarding and worthwhile. For now, though, this is what works for me. And we should always do what works for us.

Have an extraordinary 2013. See you soon.

Write Spontaneously

Writing every day is a challenge. There’s the whole finding-an-idea part, and the finding-the-time part, and the finding-the-motivation part.

Depending on my schedule, I tend to write around the same time each day. Sometimes I’ll get into the habit of writing at night, which I enjoy. Nighttime tends to make me more emotional and contemplative. When I was doing yoga every day, I did all of my writing during the day, which seemed to result in more straightforward prose and a practical voice.

Both are good. Writing at the same time every day is a powerful habit because your brain can subconsciously prepare for writing mode as the hour approaches. Or it may not.

But lately I’ve been flirting with the idea of being more spontaneous with my writing.

Writing at a regular time is good, but sometimes I feel inspired when it’s not writing time, and sometimes I don’t feel inspired when it is. As most writers will tell you, inspiration tends to strike when your pen or laptop are inaccessible — in the shower, driving, mowing the lawn, etc.

But I do have an iPhone. And it’s always in my pocket.

If I have the opportunity, why shouldn’t I write when the mood strikes, instead of capturing the idea and saying, “Oh, that’s good. I should write about that… later…”? Often when I go back and look at the idea I wrote down, I’m not as psyched about it. I may still think it’s a good idea, but the motivation to write about it has passed.

I’ve written long articles on my iPhone before — just my two thumbs and me. So it is possible. It’s just a matter of having the discipline to stop what I’m doing, open a new document, and start typing. I might be sitting in my car in a parking lot, or in the office at work, or waiting for something or someone. But a lot can be written in five minutes with real concentration.

Ubiquitous capture is something I think about often. Why not ubiquitous writing? Byword syncs right to Dropbox, where I keep all of my work. The system is in place.

One reason I haven’t done much spontaneous writing is that I convince myself I don’t have much to say beyond the idea itself. But as is often the case, once I start typing, much more than I anticipated tends to come out.

Instead of holding back ideas when they come to me — when I’m most excited about them — I’m going to try to let them become manifest as quickly as possible, regardless of the time of day. In theory, this should allow me to more genuinely capture the enthusiasm for the idea, rather than trying to recreate it when it’s “official writing time”.

We’ll see how it goes.

I hope you have a truly memorable weekend.

Love,
Andrew

Thanks for reading! Want more? Grab the free QLE Manifesto. Perhaps follow me on Twitter. Need something? Email me.

A Good Writer

A good writer is an effective communicator. He must be able to take abstract ideas and transform them into words that can be understood and appreciated by his audience. He must have mastery over the rules of writing and know when to break them.

A good writer is a relentless observer. He must be mindful of himself and his surroundings so that he may see what others do not. He must look outward, as well as inward, to realize what needs to be written.

A good writer is a courageous thinker. He must be willing to look within himself and his world to discover hidden ideas. He must be curious and brave enough to confront ideas that may challenge himself and his audience, and he must be able to present these ideas with confidence and depth of thought.

A good writer writes, even when it’s hard.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed or benefitted from this article, please consider sharing it with the button below. Perhaps follow me on Twitter. Need something? Email me.

The Superficial, The Metaphysical, and Why It's OK Not to Be Brilliant All the Time

A Creative Trough

My creative output tends to fluctuate from week to week. Some weeks I have a long list of ideas I want to write about, while other weeks I find writing to be absurdly difficult. Sometimes it's a lack of ideas, and sometimes it's a lack of motivation.

I've been in a bit of a holding pattern with my thesis this week as I wait for feedback on my new and improved (thirty-page!) introduction and start planning the final steps toward completion. This, coupled with the fact that the weather has been miraculous lately, has distracted me from the astounding productivity I saw at the beginning of the month.

I'm still getting up early and doing yoga every morning, but I feel like I've been accomplishing less. Sure, my thesis is on hold, but I could be using the spare time to push the site forward. Instead, I've been doing a lot of reading, exercising, and sitting outside.

I only have excuses for my lack of "real" productivity over the past week, but I also think there's a certain degree of value to this downtime.

The Superficial vs. The Metaphysical

I tackle a variety of topics on this site, and I tend to view each topic as falling into one of two categories. Some of them are "superficial", and some of them are "metaphysical". The superficial pieces — about apps, or shaving, or music, for example — tend to be more light-hearted, fun, and "easier" to write. The metaphysical pieces — about the beauty of being wrong, or letting go of Bruce Springsteen, or creativity — tend to be more serious, challenging, and subsequently more difficult and rewarding to write.

I feel most accomplished as a writer when I feel like I've created something out of nothing. Not just anything, but something of substance. I like feeling that I've reached with my writing, as opposed to, "Hey, here's my new favorite app you should check out." At times, this superficial posting feels a bit like a cop-out.

But, we are human, after all. Some days you don't have a brilliant idea. Some days you don't have the strength to ponder the depths of human existence. And I think that's OK.

Lighten Up

Life is too short to be serious all the time. Some writers may be able to push the envelope every single day, but I don't feel that would be the most honest representation of myself. Some days I feel like reading about eastern philosophy for three hours, and other days I feel like playing old video games from 1997. It's all fun. It's all good. It's all worthwhile.

The value of deep thinking and writing intense, thoughtful pieces is self-explanatory. We push our minds beyond their self-imposed limits to reach new levels of contemplation, understanding, and growth.

What's less obvious is the value of the so-called mindless activities, as well as the importance of rest.

The fluctuations in our creative output — the cresting waves of productivity and the lowly troughs of writer's block — are a natural part of our humanity. It's hard to be brilliant and earth-shattering every single day, just as it's hard to be relentlessly productive every day between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM.

Don't allow yourself to feel guilty about what you're excited about today.

It might be philosophy, or it might be video games. If it's video games, so what? There's value in shutting your brain down for a while. It's a form of rest, and the rest is what gives you the strength to do the hard work.

If a saxophonist never put any rests in his music, he would just keep playing the same note over and over until he passed out due to a lack of oxygen. It's the rests — the spaces between the notes — that give the notes their own unique life.

Writing is the same way. If I tried to write a challenging, deep piece every day, I would probably burn out very quickly. I might even stop writing the site for a while. By writing a mix of the fun and the thought-provoking, the superficial and the metaphysical, I keep myself sane and steady. And it's all part of the package. Everything I write about here is Me. I try to keep a general focus, but at the same time, you'll never find an article here about something I don't find interesting or consider valuable.

And look at that. Here I am, 900 words later, after wondering all weekend what I was going to write about for Monday. I thought to myself, "Maybe I'll try to write up some little piece about the value of doing nothing, and then I'll figure out something better for Tuesday." But what started out as a tiny, superficial idea turned into a piece I kind of like. Funny how writing works like that.

In short, don't be afraid to do "nothing" once in a while. Let your mind turn off or wander aimlessly. Sometimes, just sitting quietly and thinking is doing quite a lot. If you sit and think for long enough, eventually you'll arrive at a place of drive and inspiration, where you want to get up and build something amazing.

If you enjoyed or benefitted from this article, please consider sharing it with the button below. Also, you should follow me on Twitter. Need something? Email me.

Writing with Style

As an English major, I have a thing for style guides. A style guide "offers a set of standards for writing and the design of documents".

For most of my life, I've been at the mercy of the MLA, whose style manual governed the hundreds of pages of literary analysis my academic career produced.

Like Randy Murray, I'm also a fan of William Strunk's famous volume, The Elements of Style, principally for this well-known passage:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

The New York Times even has its own style guide, officially titled, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: The Official Style Guide Used by the Writers and Editors of the World's Most Authoritative Newspaper.

Some style guides focus on graphic design, such as Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style.

Most recently, I've gotten to know The Chicago Manual of Style, currently in its 16th edition (since 1906) and deemed "one of the most widely used and respected style guides in the United States". The Chicago Manual is available online, so I signed up for a free thirty-day trial and proceeded to lose several hours reading about commas, adverbs, numbers, parallel structure, and more. All in rendered in lovely Tisa with pretty-in-pink links.

I suppose an obsession with style guides is the pinnacle of English major nerdery, but I can't help it. Style guides emphasize one of my biggest values: an attention to detail. They exude a sense of professionalism and craftsmanship. Anyone can string some words together and make a sentence, but it takes a knowledge of style and standards — among other things — to turn writing into an art form.

If you enjoyed or benefitted from this article, please consider sharing it with the button below. Also, you should follow me on Twitter. Need something? Email me.

Byword: Love at First Type

As I tweeted yesterday, I have always written everything for Quarter-Life Enlightenment in Byword.

The fine gentlemen at Metaclassy just released Byword as a universal iOS app yesterday, so I thought it time to pay my respects to my favorite text editor.

Regarding Preferences

The minimalist writing app market is incredibly rich, but for me, Byword has always maintained just the right balance of features and simplicity. There are preferences, but there aren’t that many. Choose your font, column width, and whether you want a light or dark background, but otherwise, you won’t find much to fiddle with here.

Ben Brooks, however, disagrees:

I don’t dislike Byword for any one reason — I dislike it because it doesn’t work for me because of the fact that I am a tinkerer and using an app that I can tinker with, when I want to focus, is a truly bad idea.

Of course, having options doesn’t make Byword a bad app, and I know that’s not what Ben is saying. It’s the responsibility of the writer to have the self-discipline to “set it and forget it” when it comes to preferences. Ben’s text editor of choice, iA Writer, famously has zero preferences. For him, no preferences is best because it helps him do the work.

I, on the other hand, love going through preferences. Usually, the first thing I do when trying a new app is look for the Settings button. I like to customize the app to my liking, and when it comes to text editors, I think there’s value in being able to choose, for example, your font size. If I find an app aesthetically and functionally pleasing, I’m more likely to use it. Preferences allow me to tailor an app to my needs, thus increasing its aesthetic value or functionality for my experience using it.

Once I’ve set my preferences, I generally have no problem forgetting about them. Once in a while I’ll try a new font or something, but otherwise, I set it and forget it. But, that’s just me, and some may find Byword’s modest preferences to be too much.

My Writing Workflow

As of this moment, I’ve done very little long-form writing on my iOS devices. I have no desire to type hundreds of words with my thumbs on my iPhone, and while I can type at a pretty good clip on the iPad, I encounter friction when it comes to managing my documents. Allow me to explain.

I write articles on my Mac in Byword using Markdown syntax. Once an article is ready to be posted, I log into my Squarespace account and copy and paste the text into a New Post field. Then I schedule the publish time and date, hit Save, and I’m done.

Everything I write gets stored in Dropbox. QLE posts are all saved in the QLE folder. This way, I have everything I’ve ever published in one place, and it’s all safely backed up via Dropbox.

When trying to write on an iOS device, the friction I’ve encountered heretofore stems from knowing where the document is and getting that document into the QLE folder. On my iPad, for example, if I write a post in PlainText, it gets saved to my Dropbox in the PlainText folder. I then have to move the file to its proper place whenever I get back to my Mac, assuming I remember to do so.

Now, yes, most apps with Dropbox support allow you to change the Dropbox destination folder. But, some don’t, and they might rely on iCloud or some other syncing service.

My problem with writing on iOS is that I’ve never felt like I had a good sense of where my document is. For example, in Phraseology for iPad, my documents are in the Phraseology app, and to get them out, I need to export them, or email them to myself, or… something.

I’m not saying these apps don’t offer solutions to my consternation, but they’ve never “just worked” when it comes to my writing workflow. They’ve never fit perfectly right out of the box. They’re all great apps with great features, for sure, but the thought of using them to write usually makes me wince rather than tap and start writing.

Until Byword.

My Desktop Workflow on the Go

I’m not going to spend a lot of time telling you about Byword’s features or interface. (See Shawn’s and Viticci’s excellent reviews.) It’s simple, clean, and beautiful, with just enough options to make it your own. I love how it looks and works on my Mac, and the new iOS versions are no different.

Byword for iOS has created the mobile writing workflow I didn’t even know I was looking for.

When I opened Byword on my iPhone for the first time, I was given the choice between iCloud and Dropbox for syncing. I use Dropbox because it lets me know where my files are: in a folder on my Mac, which is backed up to the cloud. If I need a document, I know where to go to get it. With iCloud, documents are in the app… but I feel like I can’t get to them outside of that app. They’re somewhere in iCloud, but I can’t “touch” them, so to speak. They’re isolated to the app itself, and I can only work with them there. I believe this is what Merlin was talking about when he expressed his concern about iCloud.

Now, I do use iCloud for contacts, calendars, bookmarks, and more. It’s great. But, my writing is too precious for me to not know exactly where things are. That’s just me. I do hear that iCloud sync works beautifully in Byword, and even slightly faster than Dropbox sync.

Anyway.

After choosing Dropbox as my sync preference, Byword automatically created a Byword folder in my Dropbox where new documents would be saved. I changed the folder to my QLE folder, and in seconds, all 259 files were visible in a clean, beautiful list. The kicker was that, by default, the list was organized by Date Modified, so I could see all of my posts in chronological order, which is so much more useful than alphabetical order. Tap on a post, and there it was, just as if I’d opened it via the Finder on my Mac.

The best part though, is that if I type a new document on one of my iOS devices, it gets saved right to my QLE folder alongside every other post I’ve written. Now, no matter what device I write on, the document goes right where it’s supposed to go. I don’t have to worry about it.

I’m sure other apps can be configured the same way, but for me, Byword just rocked my face off from minute one. The interface is gorgeous and offers just what I need — no more, no less. Byword is reliable; I feel like I can trust it. I also love being able to use the same app across all three devices. It just feels good.

No longer do I feel any friction when writing on an iOS device. When I want to write, I can pick up my iPhone, iPad, or Mac. In all three cases, I open Byword, write, and things get saved to my QLE folder in Dropbox. I feel like a whole world of mobile writing has opened up now that I always have Byword — my writing weapon of choice — by my side.

Actually Writing on iOS

Patrick Rhone has infamously been writing long-form pieces — like a-thousand-words long — on his iPhone using the onscreen keyboard. I was among the skeptical as to how it could be done, but with Byword, I can finally see it.

This entire post, which Byword tells me is currently 1,309 words, was written on my iPhone in landscape mode, with my feet up on my desk. Just my two thumbs and me.

It actually feels really good. Byword’s Markdown shortcuts make block quotes, parentheses, brackets, etc. relatively painless. The biggest annoyance is switching to Safari, going to a web page, and copy/pasting a URL you need for a link. Otherwise, it’s quite pleasant.

Will I be writing on my iPhone or iPad on a regular basis? Maybe, but probably not. I’m still much faster on my Mac, of course. Then again, the slower pace is kind of nice. Either way, it’s great to know that when I’m away from my Mac, my preferred writing environment is right in my pocket, if and when I need it. With Byword, I can definitely see myself starting articles on the go, when the mood strikes, rather than jotting down ideas in Notesy and waiting until I get back to my Mac to actually write.

Love at First Type

I get excited when my favorite apps are updated or when something new and great comes out, but I’m particularly passionate about Byword. It’s my style. It just clicks with me, and the new iOS apps are no different. I can’t wait to see how the app progresses.

I can honestly say that without, Byword, this website might not exist as it does today. Byword makes me want to write. For a writer, such an app is truly priceless.

You can buy Byword on the Mac App Store for $9.99 and on the App Store for a special introductory price of $2.99.

If you enjoyed or benefitted from this article, please consider sharing it with the button below! Also, you should follow me on Twitter. Need something? Email me.

On Writing Every Day

I’ve been in a solid groove of writing a new article five days a week for quite a while now. I like it a lot, but I sometimes wonder if it’s best for the site.

Publishing a new article every weekday is a terrific challenge. There are days when a new post flows from my finger tips, and there are days when it’s a struggle to even come up with an idea. If “a writer writes”, though, then consistency is an important part of the process. Showing up every day also helps me develop trust with you, the reader. No one wants to read a site that gets updated sporadically every couple of months.

From a personal perspective, I feel proud seeing my own article at the top of the page each morning; it gives me a sense of ownership and accomplishment. The daily schedule also keeps me disciplined and holds me accountable; I never want break my promise of posting Monday through Friday. I want you to be able to depend on finding something new here every weekday.

On the other hand, I fear that my output may be overwhelming to some readers. I know how difficult it is to find time to read during the day, and I don’t want to contribute to “Instapaper guilt”.

Many of the sites I read post multiple times per day, with the majority of posts being links and full-length articles being sprinkled throughout. Given the site’s focus, I feel publishing an original article every day is a better fit. I don’t really have a news cycle to keep up with the way tech blogs do. This site is about introspection, and so I think the personal touch of original articles is most appropriate. Some might consider my articles to be long, especially when there are five of them each week, but there’s also the guarantee of no more, no less. I like to think of QLE as a dependable website.

Some of the blogging blogs declare that three times a week is the “ideal” posting schedule, under the assumption that less quantity yields more quantity. I suppose that’s true for some people, but why not try to create quality every day? In a lot of ways, I think quantity begets quality. It’s a “practice makes perfect” sort of mentality.

Still, I’m reminded of an old saying my karate instructor used to tell me when I was little: “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.” Flapping your arms around a thousand times won’t give you better punches, but concentrating on making each and every aspect of your punch perfect will. In other words, mindlessly churning out hundreds of words each day won’t automatically make you a better writer. You have to consciously work to create great stuff, and choose to develop an attention to detail.

While I may be biased, I will say I make an effort to write and publish things I feel are worth reading. I don’t want to waste your time, and I want you to look forward to reading the site each day.

You may have noticed I’ve cut back on link posts, and this has been a deliberate decision. I’ve relegated them to the Tumblr because I want QLE to be a place for my own writing. I like to dig deep with the topics I cover here, and since QLE is not a “news” site, I feel less compelled to clutter the page with block quotes.

Of course, there are many brilliant writers out there, many of whom I read every day. Lately, though, I find myself preferring to collect links on Tumblr or Twitter instead. It may not be the most minimal solution, but keeping links and articles separated as two distinct entities feels good right now. There’s also the chance I may find something so inspiring that I will quote it and use it as a basis for my own article, as I did with Mike Vardy’s night owl post.

So for now, I’ll be sticking with an original article Monday through Friday. I find it at once challenging and rewarding, and it makes me feel like a writer all the time, rather than just a few times a week.

I willingly admit — and history has shown — that I won’t always knock it out of the park every day. But, I take great comfort in Ev Bogue’s mindset that if an article doesn’t connect, I can and will always try again tomorrow.

Quarter-Life Enlightenment is still a young little corner of the Web, but by writing it every day, I hope to instill a sense of legitimacy and dependability for myself and for my readers. I want to be a writer, and so I will write.

If you enjoyed or benefitted from this article, please consider sharing it with the button below! Also, you should follow me on Twitter.

For the Love of Typing

Something like twelve years ago, when I was a freshman in high school, I took a class called Information Processing. The name was fancy, but it was really just a course about learning how to touch type. I remember we used a program called MicroType Pro, and the teacher, Ms. Vasil, made us cover our hands with these miniature plastic tables so we couldn’t see the keyboard.

I loved it, and I haven’t had to look at a keyboard since. I don’t know where I would be without that class.

My penmanship was always horrendous. It was the sore spot on every report card and an embarrassing topic of discussion at every parent-teacher conference. I still haven’t learned. I can’t write the same letter the same way twice. My words don’t sit on the lines so much as they float awkwardly between them. If you ask me, writing neatly is the most demanding of physical activities. I tend to perspire.

Nonetheless, as a writer and longtime English major, I appreciate the feeling of writing longhand, and I can geek out about pens and notebooks with the best of them. I remember an episode of Inside the Actors Studio where the guest called “the sound of pen on paper” the noise they loved most. I can agree, especially given the right pen and the right paper. There’s something romantically satisfying about the contrast between a scratching pen and the smooth flow of ink. But, when it comes down to it, a room filled with the flurry of busy typists would have to be my favorite sound. I love the clicking. The clackity noise. The thunk of the spacebar and the crack of Return. The sound of ideas materializing out of people’s minds.

I try not to take it for granted, especially when I see someone hunting and pecking for each keystroke. For a writer, the ability to type effortlessly and without thinking is invaluable. Writing longhand has its merits, of course. It’s slow, deliberate, thoughtful. You have to think carefully about each word before you write it, lest you be forced to cross something out. I can appreciate that, but there’s nothing like blasting away at a keyboard in a fit of creativity, watching your thoughts appear on-screen as quickly as they come to you.

For me, touch typing is a way of removing friction from writing. It helps me get the thoughts out of my head faster. I can have a hundred words down in a minute or two. I can focus on the idea, not on my computer. A keyboard in the hands of a touch typist disappears. It gets out of the way, and the ideas flow freely. There is no typing — only writing.

So, today I’m grateful for Information Processing.

Have a splendid weekend.

If you enjoyed or benefitted from this article, please consider sharing it with the button below! Also, you should follow me on Twitter.

Getting It Wrong the First Time

In elementary school, all of my teachers seemed to have the same poster, detailing the Ten Rules of the Classroom. I only remember the first two: “Follow directions the first time given” and “Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself”. Being the little nerd that I was, I was pretty good at following rules, but I always prided myself on that first one. I was damn good at following directions the first time given, mostly because I hated getting in trouble. I still am, and I still do.

Sixteen years of martial arts training has further taught me the importance of following directions, or more accurately, the value of precision and attention to detail. I frequently tell my students that an attention to detail is what separates an average martial artist from a great one. You need to know if that’s supposed to be a back punch or a thrust punch. You need to know how your weight should be distributed in a certain stance. You need to know what part of your foot you’re using to kick the imaginary bad guy in the face. These things matter. It’s the difference between an effective kick and broken toes.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to contribute a guest post to another website, the author of which I respect very much. I was thrilled and grateful. I labored over my article — writing, reading, rewriting, rereading — wanting, as I always do, to get it right the first time.

Eventually I was satisfied and sent it off. I was proud of what I had written and excited to share it with others. I got a response back a little while later with his feedback, and my heart sank a little.

I got it wrong.

I opened the email, and I winced as my eyes glossed over a few critical phrases. Nothing mean, of course, but what I had written wasn’t what he was looking for. I had missed the point, even though I didn’t quite understand how.

After a moment, I realized that the way I reacted to this criticism was crucial. I could have been argumentative. I could have been defensive. No one likes to be criticized, and I knew my piece was good.

But I also knew that taking this feedback graciously was the only way to get better. Not only would it make my article better, but it would make me a better writer. My piece was, for all intents and purposes, well-written. It just wasn’t what he was looking for. I hadn’t followed directions. And not intentionally, either.

I wrote back with some questions, explaining what I was struggling with and emphasizing that I wanted to try again. I wanted to get it right. He sent me back an additional explanation, and it completely elucidated what I had missed. Now, I understood. It felt good, as it always does, to struggle with something and have it finally click.

At the bottom of his email, he wrote something that surprised me. He thanked me for working with him on the article, and he said, “This is the work that writers do.”

That really stuck with me. It was a great lesson on working to deliver what the client wants, even if that means rewriting the entire thing, which I did. A lot of writing is rewriting. It was a valuable lesson in following directions. I’m grateful for the criticism and the experience. Sometimes getting it right the second time teaches us more than getting it right the first time. I ended up writing twice as much, but that’s a good thing. Writers write. The more the better.

How I Remove Friction from Writing

Aaron Mahnke has a great post on Frictionless Writing:

Any place I can find friction, and remove it, is an area of my life or business that I can push closer to my goals. So naturally, I am constantly on the lookout for ways to smooth my processes and methods for doing things. And my writing time is no different. Over the years I have gathered a number of helpful tips for making the writing process as smooth and frictionless as possible

I think about this concept often. As I wrote in a recent post, the easier it is to start writing, the better the chance of writing actually taking place. Writing could be as simple as opening a new document on your computer, but sometimes even that seems like a lot of work. So the goal is to make that process as simple as possible. For example, I use Alfred to launch Byword (a very frictionless text editor) in just a couple of keystrokes. It's easier than going down to my dock or into the Finder to double click on an application. Those few seconds often make a big difference.

Capture

Aaron divides his frictionless writing process into three areas, the first of which is Capture. After reading Getting Things Done by David Allen, I realized how important it is to be able to capture any idea — no matter how small — in the moment. It frees you from trying to remember things, which keeps your brain clear, calm, and relaxed.

My iPhone is always within arm's reach, so I often capture ideas in Omnifocus or Notesy. I also just started playing with Noted!, an app I found via Patrick Rhone. It lets you instantly type and email a note to yourself, which works well for me. I keep my inbox empty as much as possible, so if there's something in there, it means something needs my attention. I'll often email a tweet to myself if it contains a link I don't have time to check out at the time. I'm always going to check my email, so putting things there is a good way to ensure I don't miss anything.

I bought my first pack of Field Notes late last year. They're great, but I haven't yet developed the habit of carrying one with me all the time. I'm torn between keeping my pockets empty and being able to jot something down freehand. Carrying a notebook also means carrying a pen, so I have to give it some more thought. I'm leaning towards carrying one though.

Speaking of writing freehand, I also keep a scratchpad next to my computer, which is great for capturing random thoughts, making lists, and outlining posts while I'm at my desk.

I usually get ideas when I'm reading my RSS feeds in Reeder. I always get my feeds down to zero every couple of days, so when I come across something that I want to link to/write about, I just keep it unread until I have time to do so.

Manage

Management, Aaron's second aspect of frictionless writing, is probably my least systemized. All of my writing for this website is stored in a single folder in Dropbox. Link posts are named in a "Link - Author Title" format, while my original pieces are named with their title.

Now that I think about it, practically everything on my computer is stored in Dropbox. I've yet to setup a proper backup solution, but if my computer did spontaneously combust, all of my documents would be retrievable via Dropbox. My passwords and software information is stored in 1Password, and most of my apps are from the Mac App Store and easy to redownload. All of my music is kept on an external hard drive and is synced with iCloud/iTunes Match. I'm not a huge picture or video guy, but I suppose I do need a backup plan for those. At some point, I'll buy a second external hard drive and make copies with SuperDuper. According to DaisyDisk, I'm only using 47 GB of my MacBook Pro's 250 GB hard drive, and I could probably stand to clear some stuff out. Good to know when buying my next Mac.

Prioritize

Aaron concludes with the importance of Prioritization:

So after finding the best method for capturing your ideas, and building the right system for managing all of it, the final key is to install a sense of urgency and priority around our ideas. To grow as a writer, it is important to write. And it is easier to sit down to write with a nicely collected tome of ideas and sketches than it is when you can’t remember the great ideas you know you’ve lost.

This is something I've been trying to focus on in the new year, especially as I try to write more original pieces for the site. Writing something of my own Monday through Friday is a challenge, but the thrill of hitting Publish and sharing it with others is incredibly rewarding and worth it. But, my publishing goal also means I can't afford to skimp on my capture or management systems. If my system makes it easy to lose ideas, writing becomes much harder. Any stray thought could develop into a great idea, which could turn into a strong post. As such, I need to minimize the risk of losing my ideas by being able to capture and manage my thoughts quickly and easily.

The systems I have in place seem to be working pretty well so far, but I'll undoubtedly continue to tinker and refine them as time goes on. Writing is hard work, so like Aaron, my biggest focus is to make it as frictionless as possible. The easier it is to get ideas out of my head and onto my computer screen, the more likely others will get to read them.

On Being Almost Done

I had a meeting with my advisor (Hi, Dr. McBrine.) to discuss my thesis, which you may or may not know is on Middle English lyric poetry. At the time, I had sent him about 35 pages of solid criticism — the bulk of a fifty-page master’s thesis. The consensus was that the work I had done so far was very good. After months of reading, researching, and writing, such positive feedback was music to my ears. The hard part, my advisor declared, was over. All that was left to do was write my introduction and conclusion and tie it all together. I was almost done.

That was a month ago.

One month later, I’m still almost done, but I’m not any closer to actually being done than I was before the holidays.

I am paralyzed on the brink of achievement.

In some ways, it doesn’t make any sense. Just finish the damn thing! But, unfortunately, procrastination is persistent. There are a couple of reasons why I’ve failed to make any progress as of late. The first is that those initial 35 pages were hard work, and I clearly interpreted advisor’s generous feedback as, “Great job. You deserve a break.” Wrong, of course, but I’m only human.

The second and bigger reason is the concept of “almost done” itself.

Being almost done is exciting, but it also makes it much easier to come up with excuses for not finishing. “I’m almost done!” becomes “Eh, it’s almost done… I can finish it anytime.” Any time that’s not now, of course.

The brink of achievement is a precarious place. On one hand, most of the stress is gone. The hard part’s over. What once was an intimidating behemoth is now just a handful of leftover pages that need to be written. But on the other hand, less stress also means less motivation. In my case, having an entire thesis hanging over my head was excruciating. It drove me to power through in hopes of removing that pressure. Being almost done, however, means that my thesis is no longer a big deal. I’m not worried about it. Because it’s almost done.

Almost.

That “almost” is a killer. It’s a splinter in the back of my mind. A much smaller splinter than it once was, but a splinter all the same. My thesis is still there, waiting to be finished off. And so it shall.

The only way out is through.

Obviously, I have no intention of going through life with an almost done thesis on Middle English lyric poetry in my back pocket. The time has come to finish the job.

How?

Discipline and perspective.

I’m writing this Wednesday night, so my Thursday is reserved free and clear. Time to dig in. Fifty minutes on, ten minutes off. Repeat until lunchtime. Then hit it again until yoga. I recommend the BreakTime app.

What’s even more important is to think of the thesis — or any horrifying task — not as a To-Do, but as what Merlin Mann calls a To-Have-Done. That is, think not about how much it’s going to hurt to do the thing, but rather about how good it’s going to feel when it’s done. That shift in thinking makes it much easier to get started. Or get finished, as it were.

I’m not looking forward to working on my thesis for six or eight hours, but I am looking forward to being six or eight hours closer to done at the end of the day.

It’s time to own this thing. Soon it’ll be just a memory, and I can’t think of anything sweeter.

Seize the Spontaneity

Sometimes, the things we know are best for us are the things we find hardest to do. With the new year, we find ourselves saying, “I want to write more”, or “I want to exercise more”, or “I want to floss more”. But these things are hard, and sometimes the motivation to just do the thing is elusive.

One component of what makes these activities difficult is that they often have intrinsic barriers to starting. With writing, you have to be at your computer and open a new document. With exercising, you have to put on your workout clothes, leave your house, and go to the gym. With flossing, you have to measure out the ideal length of floss, wrap it around your fingers, and remember how much you hate flossing.

These acts seem inconsequential, but they actually inhibit us from doing the thing we know we should be doing. Sometimes even the smallest barrier is enough to sap our motivation. The thing doesn’t get done, and we feel crappy about it.

The solution, then, is to minimize barriers as much as possible, which is something Merlin and Dan talked about in episode 47 of Back to Work.

One way to reduce barriers is to choose tools that make things easier. I keep a notepad on my desk so I can quickly write things down if an idea comes to me. Likewise, I use Alfred to launch apps on my Mac, so all I have to do to open a new document is hit CMD + Space, type “b” for Byword, and hit Enter. This process is much easier than moving my mouse down to open the Finder, clicking Applications, then clicking on Byword. It makes it very easy to start writing.

You can figure out ways to do this with any activity. Laying out your workout clothes the night before, for instance, might increase your likelihood of actually exercising. You might also figure out ways to workout at home, so you eliminate the barrier of having to travel to the gym.

I get in trouble with my dentist every six months for not flossing enough, even though I know how important it is. But so far this year, I’ve flossed every day this week because of three little changes. I started using Plackers instead of regular floss because they’re easier to use. Second, — wait for it — I started flossing in the shower. I don’t know why; it just makes more sense to me as part of my shower routine. I also put the bag of Plackers on top of my towel rack, so I can’t get to my towel without moving them. This forces me to floss every time I take a shower, i.e. every day. So far, so good.

Now occasionally, if you’re like me, you’ll experience a random fit of inspiration. You’ll know exactly what you want to write, or the weather will be beautiful and you’ll want to go running, or you’ll just feel like flossin’. I get these little windows of energy from time to time, but the problem is that they’re fleeting. Sometimes I’ll wake up, see it’s a beautiful day and want to get outside and workout… but then I’ll pick up my iPad or get distracted by music or something on the Internet. By the time I break away from the distraction, the motivation is gone, and it’s lunchtime anyway. Oh, well.

The key here is to seize the spontaneity. Choose tools and methods that make your barriers as small as possible, and use any windows of energy to smash through them right away. The smaller the barrier, the less energy needed to overcome it, so you’ll be able to stop waiting for divine inspiration and start doing more of the thing you want to do.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s a 50 degree January day here in Connecticut, and I have some sprints to do.

Cooking With Gas

Randy Murray in Cooking With Gas:

Yes, there are still times when I climb out of bed late at night and find my way to my keyboard. There are times when I stare at the blank screen and shake my head. But most days I sit down, make the necessary adjustments, and start writing. It’s something I learned, something I earned.

No Time to Write Equals No Time to Think

Randy Murray:

I strongly believe that the time spent writing is also time spent thinking clearly. It exercises the mental muscles. And writing and thinking exorcises the demons. Taking the time to write, daily, is taking the time to sort out ideas, to organize them clearly, and to think. For me, this is key to my mental health.

Initialisms Are Not Acronyms

Brett Kelly explains The Common English Mistake You Desperately Need to Stop Making:

Please stop referring to initialisms as acronyms. The longer this goes on, the more likely it is that the definition of “acronym” will be amended to include initialisms. If you don’t think the English language is above accepting glaring errors into the canonical language based purely on widespread, extended usage by regular people, I’d like you to meet my mortal enemy, “irregardless.”

Seriously.

Shawn Blanc: Why We Began Blogging

Shawn Blanc, way back in 2007, on why we began blogging:

Those of us that do blog started our sites because we had a hint of creativity or passion or hope that simmered up inside us. There was that moment when the spark of inspiration hit us and we realized that we would love an outlet to share our passions: graphic design, language arts, technology and gadgets, or even sewing. A weblog is a perfect outlet for anyone to cultivate their passions and share them with the world.

Via Write for Your Life

Smothered Verbs

Mark Nichol over at Daily Writing Tips:

In the interests of trying to help prevent the smothering deaths of countless sentences, here’s a public-service announcement about how to avoid this senseless tragedy: If a noun phrase (verb plus preposition plus article plus noun, though variations are frequent) can be condensed by converting the noun to a verb and deleting the other words in the phrase, do it.

The examples seem so obvious:

“I’m glad they’ve come to an agreement.”
“I’m glad they agree.”

“The committee will perform an assessment of the situation.”
“The committee will assess the situation.”

“Are you interested in submitting an application?”
“Are you interested in applying?”

Omit unnecessary words.

Andy Ihnatko on Writer's Block

Andy Ihnatko says there’s no such thing as writer’s block:

As a writer, you are never “blocked.”

The fact that you’re not actually writing doesn’t mean that you’re not actually working. You’re also working when you’re thinking. Figure out what the problems are and solve them. Solve them in a half-assed way if you have to; slap enough duct tape over the problem that you can proceed to the next step. Go back later and improve it in the editing process.

Sometimes, writer’s block is part of the process.