Hey Writer—Handle with Care

Hey Writer: Handle with Care (jjhowe)Hey, writer! Your wordsmithing skills are strengthening. (Remember when a blank page made you sigh and stare at the ceiling? That’s less frequent now. Or if you start counting holes in ceiling tiles, you can break the pattern. Celebrate little victories!) The writing life is a challenge, but it’s also exciting. You’re crafting sentences now, and you know it. Still—there are things to think about.

It’s time to write with care.
By now you’ve got a reader in mind when you write. You know all about her, even see her face. What does your relationship feel like? Are you friends? Now write with her in mind. Choose words that communicate and connect, rather than overwhelm or confuse. If the relationship to your reader is caretaking, you might reach her with words that encourage or soothe her soul. If banter is your connection, you can still respect her stage of life, knowledge of the world, and her worldview. If she’s your nemesis, you may be crafting word weapons. (This is a challenge for me, and I do well to borrow Shakespeare’s words like I did here. It could be the difference between nuclear devastation fueled by unchecked emotion and precise targeting through borrowed words.)

Talk to your real, imaginary friend.
You’re writing to a reader, having a conversation on the page with an imaginary friend of your own invention—a clearly identified, very real reader. Now you’ve got a job to do.  Think about your work in these terms.

  • Hold her attention. If you make writing decisions centered purely on your own preference, she’ll sense that. If you’re not inviting her into the conversation or honoring her presence, it will be obvious. Invite your reader into your world of words prepared for her before she ever cracked the cover. If you’ve been thinking of her, she’ll know. She’ll feel welcome, like she belongs.
  • Move her along in your work. When she enters your writing world, be sure to gift her with a page-turner. Use language that’s easily understood, phrasing that reads naturally, and descriptions that serve her. If you choose to bog her down in difficult language, sentences that require two or three attempts, and heavy-handed details that are overwhelming or overdone, she may be done (long before you’d like!).
  • Genuinely impact her life. Leave her with all the benefits of your words. Choose well what you share—make your work a gift that keeps giving long after the final words. Has she met new friends? Visited new places? Grown in her knowledge or wisdom? Is her quality of life better for reading your words? Those are some goals.

It’s not about you.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it a hundred times (probably). A writer is an artist who births a beautiful “child” in the final draft, a child who might seem to be the darling who can do no wrong. A writer who never feels this way either has no genuine connection to the work or extreme insecurity in it (a topic for another day). The mature writer learns to love writing, wholeheartedly enjoying the process and avoiding self-indulgence for the sake of the reader. If a writer manages to balance the creativity and crafting with love for the reader, it’s a win-win. The writer writes, the reader reads, and the work’s fulfillment comes through the reader’s engagement.

Writer, handle your reader and words with care. Do that through skillful, thoughtful writing.



Hey Writer—Tell the Editor “No.”

Hey Writer—Say "No" to the Editor (jjhowe)

Hey writer—I have a lovely friend I keep writerly accountability with and co-write with often. Her son was home from school, and that was the day I got some real gems for writing fodder. I think you’re going to love them.

One snapshot of conversation went a little like this:

“Mom, I don’t think you should change anything about your writing. Write the way you want to write. Sometimes you have to say ‘No’ to the editor.”

“You may be right. Sometimes you just have to say ‘No’ to the editor.”

We laughed, and then I thought about what he said. I’ve decided I agree.

And every writer gasped.

I’m curious what your response was when you read that. Did you mentally run down the road to form an argument? Did you feel a particular emotion? Your writing goals likely colored your perspective, and that makes sense.

What if I told you the best writers say “No!” more often than you think? One particular editor should hear that word often.

The Inner Editor
More often than not a voice offers running critical dialogue in the writer’s mind. It may be echoes of a high school English teacher correcting grammar and word usage, or it may sound like a family member saying, “Nothin’ new under the sun—the story’s been told a hundred different ways. Why tell it again?” I think the writer “ninja” with sharp editing skills hears her own voice.

Speak to the Voice
When you hear critical voices surrounding your writing—especially in the first draft—you have options. I think my favorite is “Shut. Up.” Dig deep and craft a strong response that fits your personality. You choose. Try this: “I’m getting words down, no matter what you say, Editor!” or “Bug off!” One of my favorites is “Ain’t nobody got time for this!” You could always borrow a Shakespearean insult: “I scorn you, scurvy companion.” ¹  And “More of your conversation would infect my brain.” ² Or “You are as a candle, the better burnt out.” ³

Whatever you do, speak to the voice before it stifles your creativity and productivity. Speak kindly and firmly in response, especially when the voice sounds like your own. But stand on your own two, writer. The inner editor needs to be silenced.

There’s Work to Do
Writer, words need to be written. In your early drafts they are not polished and perfect. Can you accept that? If you can’t allow the words to fall to the page as they may, you’ll stand in a drafting jungle, paralyzed. If you can, you’ll find your creativity and productivity increasing. Then slowly and carefully, you’ll develop self-editing skills over time in later drafts—your own red pen “machete”—to clear the way for a final draft.

Tell the editor “No!” Can you do it? Writer, which words will you choose for the dialogue between the two of you? I kind of hope someone chooses an insult.

Share the words you’ll use in the comments below.



¹ William Shakespeare. Henry IV, Part II (Act 2, Scene 4).

² William Shakespeare. The Comedy of Errors (Act 2, Scene 1).

³ William Shakespeare. Henry IV Part II (Act 1, Scene 2).


Hey Writer—Highs, Lows, and the Everyday Flow

The Highs, Lows, and Everday Flows, jjhoweHey, Writer! I’ve got a question for you: What is big in your mind? When you answer the first time, just assume you need to ask several times to go deeper and mine the nugget of truth waiting for you. I tossed out casual answers the first two times, but found the revealing, transforming stuff when I gave the question the time it deserved.

Answering the Question
My first answer was words and word count—those were big in my mind. A writer writes, so words are artfully crafted and tallied. Without words to count I couldn’t call myself a writer. Writing must be about the words.

On the heels of that was readers and platform. It only made sense the words must have fifteen minutes of fame in front of a reader. A writer writes for an audience; that means readers, and publishers want lots of them. It’s all about the platform, or so I thought.

My third go-round landed at message. The message soars on wings of words with the wind of a reader supporting it. The words need a guiding message to hem them in and give them significance. The reader can only understand the words in a message that connects to their mind, heart, or story. The message is large and in charge.

Then Gut-level Honesty…
When I quietly leaned into vulnerability, I had different answers, answers that changed like the weather or depended on the day.

The highs and lows registered as big. A writer can find the highest highs and the lowest lows overwhelming.

This post went viral! Viral? That’s crazy-awesome. I wrote that. I’m crazy-awesome. I can’t wait to get the next installment published!

Four thousand words today? Amazing! I wrote every one of ’em. I’m so proud. I’m amazing!

Brian says my message matters. My message matters. My message matters. My message matters! My message matters! I’m on it!

The last post went viral.  *Checks stats for the 20th time.*  Zero views? Zero? I am nothing!

A negative word count? How does that happen? Another week of this, and I quit! I suck.

Who would read this? Nothing new under the sun, they say. Why bleed on the page if it’s already been said? This is pointless. It’ll never see the light of day.

Oof! Highs and lows could kill a writer. I know them because I’ve been there and done that. I can laugh (now) because I’ve seen the other side of every high and low. Neither lasts forever, and a writer does well to remember that. Enjoy the highs and know most of us don’t live in them. Guard your heart in the lows—and know most of us don’t live in them forever either.

Keep writing on the roller coaster of the writing life. Whatever you do, don’t let a snapshot along the way define your journey. I’ve found I’m not always applauded or amazing, and I’m not always a nobody writing nothing. Be encouraged! It’s a journey with lots of learning along the way.

The Everyday Flow
As a writer generates content, sometimes the words that flow reflect the big things in life. What’s big in your life? Is it the highlight reel of your everyday life (like most Facebook statuses)? Is it the lowlights that have been endlessly chasing you? When a writer captures the everyday flow of life, it can land in the carefully constructed positive perspective or the negative one.

Writer, may I challenge you? The highlight reel is fun. The lowlight reel is tough. If we major on one or the other, we have reel life, not real life. Life ebbs and flows; we move from one moment to another. We can write life authentically including ourselves in the scenes, but it takes some effort to avoid landing in a single reel of life. A reader may like reading about the ordinary, the mundane, the good-bad-and-ugly of it all. The same reader, sensing an unrealistic, plastic life, may decline to engage. Or, sensing there is no joy to be found, may choose to find some elsewhere.

What if a writer chose to describe real life, rather than reel life? It might be interesting for your reader to know there are highs, lows, and everyday flows. Keep things real and in proportion. Give it a shot!

Hey writer, what do you think? Do your emotions ride the highs and lows? Do you write about the reel life or real life? I’m curious. Share away!


Hey Writer, It’s a Jungle Out There

Graphic: It's a jungle out there! (Jennifer J Howe)

Writer, you face a challenge in this tech-savvy age. A writer seeks a unique reader, and it can feel like trekking to find Dr. Livingstone on the African continent.

Readers are inundated with messages 24-7-365. Inboxes flood with the messages they want and the junk they don’t. Hundreds of messages add up in little red circle alerts on phones everywhere.

An unknown writer is a sapling trying to grab a ray of light in the jungle. It sounds daunting or impossible.

Roughly 7 1/2 billion people call this blue marble home. If technology reached a fraction of them, there would be audiences for everyone. A handful of writers reach millions and tens of millions. Still, no one corners the market on global population. What if you believed there are enough readers for everyone? What if a community filled with encouragement helped others on their journey to the audience they’re looking for? What if we amplified others’ good words for the good of others?

A writer could do that, but it doesn’t feel natural. Language like competition, rat race, and dog-eat-dog colors our perspective. They say it’s a jungle out there. The truth is, you writerly neighbors two trees over in the jungle have messages that could reach readers near you. Writers sit in a jungle saturated with messages.

What will you do with this reality?

A few words of advice—

Remember my post about Connection with your reader? Here’s another facet: connect with writers, even those who write in your neck of the woods. Someone writes well in your genre? Read it. Has a similar message? Read it—knowing your message, voice, and style are different and matter. Share the good words with other writers if you dare.

Every writer must develop. A sapling in the forest may take longer to develop than the one dropped in a sunshiny meadow, granted. Be the diligent writer who grows where you’re planted.

Growth can mean many things. You might work to identify your audience and niche in the jungle. You might grow an e-mail list. You might even outgrow a generic site to your own dot com. Or try these:

  • Leverage technology to learn your craft, increase confidence, and publicize work.
  • Learn new writing techniques and genres. Stretch yourself.
  • Learn conventions in order to produce clean content.
  • Learn to become your own editing critic before sharing your work.
  • Get into encouraging learning environments (conferences).

Don’t get so comfortable you forget to grow, and don’t forget to count the baby steps you take along the way.

Clear the way!
Writer, get out your machete. There’s work to be done, and you’ll have to clear your way.

  • Cut extra words. It takes time to know good ones, but cut, cut, cut! Experienced writers write all the words and keep the good ones. Create a “Right Words, Wrong Timing” space to save the darlings you might need.
  • Be precise and remove unrelated content. I wanted to highlight this point. The scope of a writing project is genre-driven and theme-related. Keep to a specific, centered argument.
  • Be healthy! An author easily establishes and maintains an unhealthy link to the work. Friend, you are not your words, thoughts, or message. The ideas are separate and distinct from your person. Don’t get caught up in anxiety, shame, or distress. Be you—a writer—who has words, thoughts, and a message to be refined and shared.

If a tree falls in the jungle and no one hears it… Do you wonder if your efforts lead to a view on the screen? It’s natural. If a sapling had thinking, I imagine it would dream of peeking through the canopy and wonder if it could ever happen. That’s a writer’s life. The seed of a message is watered by thoughts of the need for it, desire to share it, and encouraging validation.

The writer begins the journey in obscurity. Once upon a time, even the best authors created “masterpieces” only a mother could love. But the household names we know did two things:

  • They wrote often.
  • They never gave up.

Writing in private offers the freedom to say everything. Going public invites the task of pointed criticism and sharper editing. If you are famous in the industry and your book title is in smaller font than your name, you have to live up to that. That writer sits in an InstantPot ™ but that’s another post.

Writing in a quiet corner with a few people who know your name and love you enough to speak truth and encourage you in your way, that’s a beautiful space. (There’s something satisfying about coming full circle.)

Hey Writer—connect, grow, clear the way, and—whatever you do—write!


Hey Writer, Connect with Your Reader

Hey Writer, Connect!Writing has a purpose: to be read. Think of it like a time capsule containing ideas, instruction, and emotion. When written thoughts are master-crafted, the brilliance of the work shines when a reader’s eyes find it.

Can I suggest you’re not just smithing words? A writer establishes a relationship. That’s what writing really is. It’s a beautiful relationship—a dance if you like—transcending time and distance on paper or paperless. The work is choreographed movement, and we’d have a tough time deciding who takes the lead. It’s a chicken-egg question, for sure: which came first, the writer’s thoughts or the reader in mind?

Writing in this century allows for immediate sharing or time to pass. The distance can be down the street or anywhere on the globe with translation! Technology has moved writing and publishing to a whole different level. (Makes me glad I wasn’t born in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago. Cuneiform, anyone?) Still the relationship is a connection—the writer sends an intellectual or emotional message, and the reader receives and engages with those ideas on an intellectual or emotional level. You have to love a meeting of the minds and a connection of the hearts.

Relational responsibility
That’s an intellectual definition up there, but it works. I think the writer is responsible for connection, not the reader, and I have thoughts.

Know your audience. This isn’t new, and maybe it’s been over-done. It’s critical, though. A writer forms the message with a reader in mind. The particulars are sifted through. Will gender, age, vocabulary, or length of the work play in? The smart writer knows if those things are important to the message, and the key factors become part of the relational choreography on the page.

Share the real you. A reader will engage differently when writing is academic (read: cold) and when it is a story with personal details (read: warm). Often the scientific research paper isn’t the place for your personal details. We know that. Where the writer runs into trouble is with a piece that “writes the author out of it.” It’s the difference between “You should _______” and “Can I share my experience with _______?” Done well, the story is captivating and convincing. The second choice has “Engagement” written all over it. Telling coldly and sharing warmly will be received differently. Decide how you’d like to reveal your heart and mind and how you’d like your reader to receive the message.

Have integrity. This means a few things in non-fiction writing.

Write honestly. Create non-fiction works that are truthful and sound in argument or character portrayal. Do your research for non-fiction works that require it.

Have intellectual integrity. This can be difficult. As a rule, our American culture reasons poorly. Logic is rarely taught. A good writer accepts when the argument falls flat. Either that work is re-worked, or it reveals the problems openly (read: not in the fine print).

Presentation matters. Passion about the message is good and right, but incorporating spin, hype, or inciting an audience with fake news is unkind. Choose passionate words well within your style. Consider using the best words stated positively rather than negatively.

In fiction, integrity flows through the work’s message with some of the elements above, but I think there’s more. Create a solid and meaningful plot. The characters and details should be consistent (think: world building or personal description). When confusion sets in a reader notices a misstep in the dance.

Share your heART. Don’t miss this. Share from the heart to your reader even when you’re tempted to lean into the brain academically. When you care deeply about the message, the writing process feels different to both the author and the reader. Writing is an art, and it is art. Imagine what might happen if that ten-page paper had a little more heart behind it. Poetry and creative writing leans into the heart very naturally. Writing blog posts about writing might not. Unless—

Love makes the words go ’round. Want your words to connect meaningfully, to have a full dance card with reader after reader engaging? It’s about the love, baby. Think about your reader. Do you know what she needs? Do you know the air she breathes, the vital source of life she’s seeking? Do you know her pains and sorrows, her joys and thrills? Write to those things because you care.

Love your reader. She’s waiting to experience your choreography in the work. Whatever you offer her, make sure you gift artfully crafted words of truth and integrity (fiction or non-) from your authentic heart. Let the work be motivated by love, to enrich her life, whether for inspiration, education, or her deep, soulish joy. It’s for her.

Connect deeply. Go change the world with your good words, writer!


Hey Writer, Who-o-o-o-o are You?

Hey Writer, are you a professional or hobbyist? Do you fit neatly into a genre? Have you found your niche in the blogosphere or the bookshelf? Does any of that matter? It does, and here’s why: when you know who you are, you can begin to imagine your reader. A form emerges from the shadows, and soon you see a face and recognize a heart. Your reader may be a younger self or someone completely different, but we all wisely start in the same place, identifying some key things about ourselves.1

Let’s assume you think you might be a writer. Congratulations! You’re reading in the right place. Or is it the write place?  *Grin!*

What does a writer do? What are the hallmarks of a writer? I think it’s as simple as a human being leveraging written communication to share a message to an audience (from one to millions of readers). That’s not particularly difficult to define. The hard part, if I know you as well as I know myself, is choosing the moment to decide you will personally leverage that writing you do in secret to share a message with an audience. When the eyeballs fall on your pages, it suddenly gets real, just sayin’. I think that’s true for every writer.

What does it mean to be a writer? It means sharing something of importance—a passion, truth, or storyline—or a mix of all of those. Is it difficult?

“Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. “Why, no,” dead-panned Smith. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” Walter Winchell, 1946.

Writer, when you put your words out there, you share the core of who you are. Your writing is personal to you, and in some sense, every piece is your “darling.” Most writers remember their first share or submission because it was emotional and difficult. Add a “Thank you, but we aren’t interested in printing that,” and it gets harder.

If that’s true, why write at all? Because something just has to be shared. You know the feeling. It’s the story you personally want to read but can’t find on the shelf. It’s the truth you know others need in order to live. It’s your own story you know will offer courage and healing to others who have lived the life you’re so familiar with. It’s the thought of a poem, short story, or book that just won’t let go of your mind and heart. Yeah, you’re a writer if that’s happening.

By now you’re thinking, Where, oh where, do I start? Start with simple questions. Gather some answers and follow the inner dialogue as it meanders.

1. What are you passionate about? That begins to shape what you have to say.

2. How would you summarize your message or story in a few words or a couple of sentences? Spend some good time on this one because it shapes your early impression of what you have to say.

3. Is there a genre for this? If you’re not sure, learn a bit about the genres that are out there in the world. If you’ve got a handle on it, and there is a genre, great. Read other writers who have successfully done what you plan to do. No, don’t plagiarize! Just be familiar with the way other writers have handled their message and content. Drill down to specifics if you can. Don’t read random fiction; read or skim what fits with your story in some way.

One word of caution: don’t lose heart that others have written on the same thing. Be encouraged that they have, and then fill voids with your own voice. Even if you don’t spot a gaping hole in the literature, know that your voice in the cosmic conversation matters. Don’t give up!

4. Who am I writing to? That fine-tunes the style in which you say it. This part of the self-directed Q&A deserves it’s own attention, but I’ll get to it. For now, when you imagine the reader taking in your writing and enjoying it, how would you describe this person? Try to think about anything that would be important—gender, age, stage of life, lifestyle, passions and interests, life story. Your message or storyline generally plays into specific audience characteristics. Define those because you are the author, and you get to do that. Don’t make wild assumptions about who will choose to pick up your work (you don’t have that kind of control). But as you write, you’ll remember this reader and have conversations as you go.

Writer, remember two things: you are a writer, and you are amazing! Now get started.


Hey Writer, Comparison Kills Creativity

Writerly fabric has common threads, but writing style, the message, life lessons, the growth from experience—those are unique. Why you and I know this in our heads but not trust with our hearts is complicated. Once upon a time we heard encouragement that sounded like little waves of “You’re special!” Those words can feel warm and wonderful. Those same words can wash over us very differently with a slight twist of tone or inflection. They can make a person feel awkward, embarrassed, and insecure. The truth is, we can hear the same words, and a completely different response is evoked.

Writers are readers, and the first thing an emotionally healthy writer does with words (spoken and written) is evaluate them for truth. We want truth, especially when the words reflect on our souls or submissions. But writer, consider the source. That’s the “must do” in the list today. You simply must think about the heart behind the words. A beautiful, honest heart shares truth in a loving way (even if the message might be a little painful). Truth is like that.

Image: Comparison Kills CreativityBut there’s more.

Writers being readers, we spend time taking in others’ good words. When those “others” have been successful in their writing, we begin to compare. It starts honestly and naively: “I want to be like her when I grow up.” That’s fine when skill and methods can be learned, and you start down the road with your unique journey in mind. It gets ugly quick when we want the end result without the work, or when we refuse to take the first step on the journey because—

My voice doesn’t really matter. I can’t say it better than __________. The message has already been said. If I did write something, who would read it? Publishers don’t give writers like me the time of day. I’m a nobody. My name isn’t Beth, Christine, Joyce, Lysa, Lisa, Liz, Nancy, or Priscilla. This is too hard!

Writer, remember two things if you remember nothing else.

Comparison doesn’t work.
You aren’t like anyone else. Your life story is yours. The message you share comes out of your own learning, growth, and experience. No one else has that. You are spec—let’s not use those words, even if they are true. You are unique! Think of your life a little like a sculpture, shaped by a whole tool chest of chisels. Each tool mark in your life is slightly different than mine, even if the circumstances are stone from similar quarries. Your voice matters because it isn’t like anyone else. Your message matters because only you can tell it in your voice with your perspective. Your plot twists will be different, so long as you don’t plagiarize.

So writer, write. In your voice. Share your message. Write in the few minutes you have. Write with the audience in mind, but long before their eyes will find it. You are writing in a precious place, and it’s a gift. For now, you are in obscurity, and that’s wonderful! It’s a blessing and a safe place to write without pressure or shame.

Comparison kills creativity.
Writer, go to your happy place. Go to the place where you write freely without other writers in mind. It’s not that we want to hold the “competition” in mind and heart with ugliness or defiance or loathing (self-loathing or directed at others). Just take a moment to dismiss them from the audience when you have trouble with shame in their shadows. (We should talk about this later in terms of community!) When a writer creates in the shadow of another’s perceived greatness, there is no freedom.

Writers tend to watch Ps and Qs and commas. That’s good writing in light of remembering the reader and presenting good, clean words. Excellence is never sacrificed in the work. If the creative mind returns to others’ writing samples, and it leans comparison and shame, stop it. That’s no bueno! You need a fresh start. Over-monitoring in the shadow of comparison shuts down your own creativity, and your work will likely be blocked or dripping with your felt shame.

The solution? Release others, and you release your own creativity! How’s that sound? Become less concerned about others’ success and release them (and their work) from your head space. Then you’re free to be you, write in your voice, and share your message.

I hear “Fr-ee-ee-ee-ee-dom!” in my head. Do you?

Writer, it’s time to write in freedom with amazing creativity. Lean in. Get to it!