How’s that New Year’s writing resolution going?

One-twelfth of 2018 has come and gone, and as February rolls on, there’s a bit more elbow room in my yoga classes, my personal trainer’s schedule has opened up, and all over the world, stick-to-it planners are starting to collect a little dust. As that New-Year vigor begins to lose momentum, how’s that writing resolution of yours going?

I’ve just had a chat with Raphael, a would-be writer friend of mine. “How,” he asked, “can I finally overcome those (unnamable and unfathomable) barriers that have stopped me from seriously investing time into writing something meaningful?” It’s a dream that has whispered patiently from the back of his mind for years, but creating a writing habit that endures has eluded him.

For those of us who want our writing habits to be so much more than a well-intended push that’s bound to sputter and die away, how do we finally make good on those aspirations to write, to keep writing, and to finish something?

How to Make Good on Your New Year’s Writing Resolution

Developing any new habit is a challenge, but this can be particularly true for writing, which is so often pushed aside as less-than-a-priority on busy days. Here are some ideas for keeping this New Year’s promise to yourself and your future readers.

Photo by on Unsplash

Make it Easy on Yourself

In Lieberum’s ridiculously straightforward manual for finally bridging the gap between ambition and action, he addresses the strain on willpower in these earliest stages of habit formation. His advice is to make it easy on yourself.

What that means when developing a writing habit depends on when in your day you aspire to write, which tools you need, and what usually gets in the way. I like a first-thing-in-the-morning session before starting my workday. I must, therefore, make sitting down to write with my first cup of coffee the easiest thing I could do in the morning. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, let’s take a look at what usually gets in my way:

If I wake up with time to write, I tend to go straight to the kitchen and wake up the Nespresso machine. While I’m waiting for it to warm up and then to brew, I start tidying up the kitchen or the living room. Before I know it, I’ve finished my coffee and my house is neater, but I’ve got no writing done and it’s time to get focused on work. Other days, I spot whatever book I’m reading and think, I’ll just read a chapter and then get to writing. Or, worst of all, I make my coffee, forgo the housework, resist my book, and get onto my laptop, but then I get lost in my inbox or on social media.

The solution? Well, at night, after Paul and I finish dinner, we tidy everything up before heading to bed. Then, after a little pre-sleep reading, I tuck my book away into my nightstand drawer—I won’t even see it in the morning. And for the final bit, which is admittedly less than ideal for me, I have to write on paper to avoid the internet and its countless distractions altogether. I pack away my laptop at night and make sure that my notebook and my favorite pens and pencils are sitting exactly where I like to have my morning coffee.

Get Held Accountable

Each week, I have two calls with a lovely client named Desiree. We meet for some negotiated editing and slowly, her manuscript is moving along. Over these last several months, a pattern has emerged: Whatever progress Desiree has made since we last spoke was accomplished exactly just before or after one of our calls. Anticipating our session pushes her to be prepared for the next call.

Photo by on Unsplash

Of course, paying an editor for weekly coaching or writing support isn’t accessible for all of us. Luckily, there are several other options for finding accountability. On, for example, there are creative writing groups who meet biweekly or monthly to write together or give feedback on each other’s work over brunch, creating a sense of community and a built-in accountability group.

What tends to work for me are “writing dates.” I’m lucky enough to have several friends who write for various reasons, so I often plan a date with one of them, at a cafe or on a video call, and we’ll talk about what we’re working on and then use pomodoros to structure our co-writing sessions.

Give Yourself a Daily Objective

If you’re simply working on developing a writing habit but don’t have a particular project underway, give yourself an objective for each session. Planning to sit and write whatever comes to mind is problematic for those of us who may end up putting it off when we’re not sure what to write about.

Photo by Jess Watters on Unsplash

For Raphael, who’s been traveling nonstop for several years and who is now considering writing a memoir, I suggested that he research several literary concepts and writing techniques. His memoir would cover the unreal experiences he’s had all over the world, the random strangers who changed his life, and most importantly, what it all did to him. I assigned him the following tasks:

  • Read up on the character arc and the three-act structure and spend some time each day outlining several approaches to the themes and organization of your memoir.
  • Spend a week playing with show, don’t tell. Pick some unforgettable moments that you’re sure to cover in your memoir and give the scene a go, focusing on show, don’t tell. Practice describing specific emotional experiences on different days.
    • Monday: Outrage (e.g., an experience, for example, that left you feeling cheated, mistreated, or angry)
    • Tuesday: Euphoria
    • Wednesday: Jealousy
    • Thursday: Vulnerability
    • Friday:  Gratitude
  • Take show, don’t tell into your character development. Instead of summarizing the personalities you’ve met along the way, show them to us in a scene where we can make our own judgements based on what they say and do. Focus on a different person each day.

Whatever your writing endeavors are, there are endless techniques and aspects of writing that you could focus on for a session.  Having an objective gives you a focus and therefore fewer excuses for putting it off. If you’re like me and the gratification of checking things off of a to-do list motivates you, definitely give this method a try.

Got more ideas on how to develop a writing habit? Please share them below. Tell us what works for you!




“Only idiots need editors.”

Ouch. I’ve literally just heard someone say, “Only idiots need editors.”

“Tell that to J.K. Rowling,” my husband responded. At that, my inner Macaulay Culkin (circa Home Alone 2) dropped on one knee and fist pumped with an emphatic “YES!” because:

(a) my guy reflexively stood up to a bully for me (which is awesome),
(b) he appreciates Rowling (which means he mustn’t hate the countless hours of HP talk I’ve subjected him to), and
(c) he gave me a great argument to use here in this article. Thanks, Paul!

Editing is a rather broad term that fails in every language I speak to cover the breadth and depth of what kind of support it actually is. This is why I think the perpetrator (insert stink-eye emoji here) probably meant no harm but spoke (at least primarily) from ignorance.

Editing is not spell-checking. Otherwise, you could ask just about anyone to review your writing, and even your word processor can tell the difference between their and there in context. (And by the way, it doesn’t take an idiot to overlook a spelling mistake.)

Instead, editing is an integral part of any manuscript’s lifecycle. Spelling is, of course, a concern, but there are different kinds of editing, and each is approached with a specific focus and varying degrees of intensity.

If you want to be less ignorant than that guy, check out this page for more on the kinds of editing that masterful authors have always depended on for professional, objective feedback and guidance in the development of their stories—fiction or otherwise.

P. S. A humble shout out to writer and J.K. Rowling’s editor, Arthur A. Levine, who doesn’t, in fact, work for an idiot.

Why You Should RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain

RUE (i.e., resist the urge to explain) is a brilliant yet common-sense concept from Browne and King, the authors of one my favorite editing resources, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print. Importantly, this is not just a wise warning for fiction writers but a principle to be observed by nonfiction and academic writers as well.

What resist the urge to explain means is (hopefully) self-evident, but the grounds for RUE may be less so. There are plenty of reasons to avoid unnecessary explanation, but let’s skip the mindless enumeration and take a look at an example of R.U.E. in action.

Last night I watched Hidden Figures, a nonfiction-book-based film1 that follows three female African-American mathematicians working for NASA during the Space Race with the USSR and, importantly, the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Let’s explore R.U.E. using my favorite line from the film, a simple yet powerful response delivered by Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan, an acting computer supervisor who is repeatedly denied an official promotion and the corresponding raise. After a brief but icy exchange that follows weeks of sharpening tension, her immediate supervisor, played by Kirsten Dunst, stops Spencer on her way out of the newly desegregated ladies’ room:

“Despite what you may think,” Dunst says, “I have nothing against y’all.”

Spencer stops. Turning to look at Dunst, she says, “I know you probably believe that.”

Bazinga! Simple, yet powerful. As Spencer exits (leaving behind a thoughtful Ms. Dunst), I’m grinning like a buffoon and throwing a million mental high-fives in Spencer’s direction from my beanbag.

But what’s this got to do with R.U.E.? Let’s explore another take of this exchange:

“Despite what you may think,” Dunst says defensively, “I have nothing against y’all.”

Annoyed by the fact that Dunst clearly doesn’t get it, Spencer stops and turns to face her. “I know you probably believe that,” she says ironically. “Maybe you think you’re not racist, and maybe you aren’t consciously, but if being Black means that I’m less fit to be a supervisor than you, then I’d say, yes, you’re holding something against me: my skin color.”

Dunst was bewildered by Spencer’s accusation. She stood in stunned silence as she watched her leave.

Okay, I added a bunch of rubbish here, but hopefully I made my point. Not only have the explanations (of emotion, manner, and the meaning of the utterance) insulted our intelligence by assuming that (a) we wouldn’t have been able to figure it out on our own and (b) our imaginations wouldn’t have been able to fill in the blanks, the exchange has also completely lost its bazinga! factor. By adding “defensively,” I’ve intruded upon your interpretation of Dunst’s character and her statement. I’ve made it one-dimensional and “boxed it in” by limiting the way the readers’ imaginations may have played the scene out. Furthermore, we certainly didn’t need clarification that Dorothy’s statement was ironic or that her supervisor’s cluelessness really ground her gears.

In the case of fiction and creative writing, Browne and King’s discussion of RUE specifically addresses the naming of the emotion behind a character’s behavior or language, as in the addition of defensively and ironically to the dialogue tags and the description of the emotional states bewildered and annoyed. The trouble with descriptions like these are connected to the Show, Don’t Tell rule:

[The] tendency to describe a character’s emotion may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the writer. And more often than not, writers tell their readers things already shown by dialogue and action. It’s as if they’re repeating themselves to make sure their readers get the point. So when you come across an explanation of a character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation wasn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, rewrite the passage so that it is. (Browne & King, 1993, p. 17)

In nonfiction and other genres, writers have to be cautious to avoid providing unnecessary explanations (like my addition of the meaning behind Spencer’s original line). Yes, of course, you should explain concepts or arguments that won’t be clear to your readers otherwise, but every reader can be assumed to have some level of critical-thinking ability, so don’t think for them.

A final quote from Browne and King on the work of a writer who managed to RUE throughout her novel. Although they’re still talking about fiction, the principle applies equally to all genres of writing:

Also, by never explaining her situations, by trusting her readers to keep up her, [the author] pays her readers the compliment of assuming them to be intelligent. And that’s a compliment any writer would do well to pass along. (Browne & King, 1993, p. 37)


1based on the autobiographical novel by Margot Lee Shetterly

Character Voice & Individuality: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is the most eloquently written novel I’ve read since McEwan’s Atonement. Luckily, it’s far less depressing (not at all depressing, in fact, despite a theme of death carrying the first two scenes). Somehow, the narrative maintains a sense of levity and humor, even in moments we might expect to be… moodier. One of the greatest strengths I’ve found in the writing so far is the texture and individuality of character voice.

Take a look at the correspondence between our protagonists, Cora and Luke, presented in the same order in the book:


I’m going to deprive myself the pedantic pleasure of exploring every semantic, pragmatic, syntactic, and lexical difference between the letters (and the respective voices), and instead, I’ll point out two obvious differences. (Sigh.)

  1. Word count. 416 vs. 59. Luke’s response is about 1/7 the length of Cora’s.
  2. Terms of endearment/expressions of affection. I counted 8 in Cora’s and 0 in Luke’s. We might be tempted to explain this difference with unrequited love, but if you’ve read the preceding 69 pages, you’ll know that’s not true. In fact, we know that Luke believes himself to be in love with Cora, while Cora has, as of yet, failed to betray any romantic attachment to her dear imp whatsoever.

So how do we summarize what makes them different? Voice.

Dissecting and quantifying the elements of a character’s speech or written dialogue is unlikely to be helpful in creating or gauging individualities, but this exercise certainly illustrates Perry’s ability to replicate a crucial truth about the human voice:

Individuals think, and therefore, speak and write differently.

Sometimes these differences are attributable to gender: Studies comparing male and female language have revealed distinctions in the distribution of certain types of words (e.g., descriptive words like adjectives and adverbs) and utterances (e.g., requests over commands), as well as the subconscious intentions that underlie such language choices. The speech of U.S. women, for example, tends to be characterized by utterances that create or reinforce solidarity between speakers, whereas U.S. men’s speech often creates or reinforces lateral social distance, reflecting perceived differences in power.

But, importantly, it’s not just gender that makes the difference. Character voices with individuality betray personality, emotional hang-ups, moods, ulterior motives, cultural backgrounds, social class, education and profession, the relationship between the characters speaking, etc.

If your editor has warned you that the voice of your characters are flat or that they lack individuality, consider the dramatic differences in Perry’s example. Luke uses no pet names, no intensifiers, no formatting for emphasis, and absolutely no redundancy. He is succinct, almost terse. But his letter isn’t lacking in humor, nor does it fail to reveal perhaps a little more than he intended to about his feelings for Cora. His addressee, on the other hand, writes with deep description of setting and emotion, even if only exaggerated to make a point. She repeats herself multiple times and her wordiness provides a stark contrast to Luke’s economy of words.

As I get to know these characters, I like to imagine that, although their letters are different in scope and size, Luke spent no less time composing his letter, at least in thought, than Cora did. As a reader, I project such meaning because the individuality of character voices creates, in the mind, a world with two unique individuals with subconscious (or otherwise) agendas, hopes, desires, and tells.

Can you think of any other brilliant literary examples of voices that breathe life-like vibrancy into their characters? Please share!

On I, Part 2: Alternatives to the First Person in Academic Writing

Avoidance of the first person in academic writing can serve to keep your readers’ focus on what matters: the findings. In other words, removing I removes the “youness” that may give readers an impression of subjectivity or distract attention away from the research. This is just one of a laundry list of reasons you might avoid the first person. Perhaps instead you’re drawn to the distance it affords (see On I: Part 1). Maybe “I” is forbidden by your dissertation committee, or it may simply disagree with your writing style.

Whatever the reason, both novice and seasoned writers choose to report their research through more impersonal prose. The trouble is, research is personal. You’ve been driven toward the subject by passion or interest. You’ve spent hours deliberating your approach, collecting the data, and analyzing and interpreting it. So how do you tuck away the inevitable intimacy of it all?

Alternatives to the First Person

A skilled writer can cleverly hide herself behind careful syntax and deliberated word choices, making it seem nearly as if the research conducted itself. Countless writers masterfully construct their manuscripts this way. Let’s consider some alternatives to the first person in academic writing:

Grammatical Subjects that Embody the Intended Focus

Words like this study, this project, the analysis, the evidence, the findings, the report, and this section can shift the focus off the writer and onto the study as demonstrated by Flowerdew and Wang (2016, p. 42):

This present case study incorporates both qualitative (in terms of a reflective account of editing) and quantitative (in terms of systematic analysis of a corpus of revision changes), with the hope of taking advantage of both types of approach.

There isn’t an I (or we) in sight. The authors describe what the case study incorporates rather than describing what they incorporated into their case study.

The Dummy Subject (The Expletive “It”)

Let’s consider a second option by looking again to our textual mentor, Flowerdew and Wang (2016; p. 42):

Since the data collected for this study come from manuscripts that were edited by the author’s editor, it is useful to describe briefly how he interacted with the original authors while trying to improve their manuscripts.

Here, instead of using metalanguage referring to themselves, such as we will describe, the authors used an it-phrase (i.e., it is useful) that renders this unnecessary in addition to providing a justification for the inclusion of the subject’s interactions. (Also note the use of the data as a subject of the verb come instead of we collected data.)

Compare personal language like we disagree with Rozycki and Johnson or we don’t believe that journal editors can judge with the it-phrases that Flowerdew and Wang (2016, p. 50) opted for below:

Therefore, it is premature to argue, as Rozcki and Johnson (2013, p. 166) did their paper, that it might be necessary for EAL authors to pay so much attention as they do now to grammatical issues or pay for editing services unless the journal editors or reviewers specifically make such requests.


From the perspective of journal editors, this means that it is impossible to objectively judge if a manuscript is intelligible or not.

The Passive Voice

The passive voice is a touchy subject that most committees and writing guides have an opinion about, but it is often cited as a legitimate means to avoiding the first person because it bypasses the mention of any actor at all.

Sticking with the same textual mentor, I found the following exemplary alternatives to potential (and successfully avoided) first-person phrases we placed and we loaded (p. 43):

Original sentences and revised sentences were placed into adjacent cells for comparison. Each pair of sentences was then loaded onto MaxQDA, a qualitative data analysis software tool.

The Third Person: The Researcher or the Author

The following example of this approach, taken from the same textual mentor (Flowerdew & Wang, 2016, p. 44), combines the use of the authors (in place of the first person) and the passive voice to keep the readers’ focus on the data treatment:

Revision changes of one research article (J01) were coded together by the two co-authors and an undergraduate research assistant (RA) to help the RA become familiar with the coding system.

But must you really avoid the first person in academic writing?

Despite warnings against the use of the first person in articles with open-and-shut titles like Writing No-No #1: Never Use 1st or 2nd Person, there are arguments against the need to hide yourself behind a veil of anonymity and objectivity as you report your research.

My presentation of our textual mentor (Flowerdew and Wong, 2016) has been a bit misleading up until this point because the authors do in fact use the first person in their published academic article (p. 43):

When analyzing the data, we were particularly interested in developing a taxonomy that can systematically describe the revision changes, taking into account the research insights from previous studies.

GASP! Not only did they use the first person, but they’re explicitly referring to their interests! Here’s a second instance (p. 49):

In this discussion section, we will respond to the three research questions posed earlier in the article.

These published researchers shamelessly bring themselves into the picture. And why not?

In my next article on the first person, I’ll make a case for revealing yourself in your writing for the sake of ownership and in the name of style. Yes, I’m talking about my about academic writing, and I just said style.

Coming Soon: On I, Part 3: Why You Should Write Your Dissertation in the First Person


Flowerdew, J. & Wang, S. H. (2016). Author’s editor revisions to manuscripts published in international journals. Journal of Second Language Writing, 32, 39-52.


Me, Myself, &… The Researcher? The First Person in Academic Writing

In our secondary school years, our teachers cautioned us against the use of the first person in expository writing. Through lectures and the red pen, we learned to fear the formidable power of I.  Why? As a composition teacher, my own words of caution against the use of the first person in academic writing were less about its weaknesses than a lack of reverence for its potential.

But while I is vulnerable to abuse and misuse, thoughtful writers can wield the powers of a first-person narrative to create effective, engaging content—even in the academic arena.

The Trouble with the First Person in Academic Writing

For graduate students and PhD candidates, apprehension towards the first person is rooted deeply throughout the slippery slopes of the inescapable ideology that pervades the scientific community: Just consider the dialectic title of medical researcher William Martin’s (2013) article,  Science is dispassionate, we are told.

In the interest of contributing objective truth to collective scientific knowledge, we believe that we must approach our research and writing with noble detachment—we must keep it impersonal. This conviction feeds first-person anxiety, for what word can make it feel more personal than I?

Apprehensive writers therefore give the imposing first-person pronouns a wide berth, a difficult task considering that it is the writer who is at the very heart of every step in the research process.

The result? Well, there is more than one possibility, but before I delve into the potentially problematic writing of I-fearers (later in this series), I’ll consider the devices of masterful first-person avoidance.  Read On: On I, Part 2: Alternatives to the First Person in Academic Writing

Why Good Words Go Missing

As a careful writer, I craft my sentences with something akin to obsession. My writing process is a reiterative cycle: write, rewrite, delete, write, tweak, and rewrite again. I select every word deliberately. I organize every paragraph with intention.

For choosy writers who can relate to this—those of you who don’t write anything haphazardly—getting the revised manuscript back from the editor can sometimes leave you feeling… wounded.

You’ll recognize the motives behind most revisions, but others may baffle you. Some of my clients have asked for clarity:

“My sentence was grammatically sound. So, why did my editor delete perfectly good words?”

Why Good Words Go Missing

When the manuscript comes back from the editor, it’s up to you to consider the revisions and to either accept or reject the proposed changes. You may find that the revised version has a (substantially) lower word count than the draft you submitted. But why? Where did all your words go?

53068728My favorite way to answer this is through three words borrowed from the American Psychological Association’s (2010) publication guide: Economy of Expression.

They advise, “[s]ay only what needs to be said. The author who is frugal with words not only writes a more readable manuscript but also increases the chances that the manuscript will be accepted for publication” (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 67).

You may not be concerned with getting published, but every writer should be concerned about wordiness and needless repetition. In Zinsser’s (1976/2006) classic writing guide, he warns against clutter in various forms, such as phrasal verbs that needn’t be phrasal (e.g. free up) and descriptive words that don’t add any meaning (e.g. tall skyscraper).

To illustrate what this looks like in academic writing, let’s identify some elements that don’t lend any clarity or deeper meaning to these sentences (taken from an early draft of one of my research reports—gulp):

The two languages have the same nasal and glide inventories in common (i.e., /m/, /n/, and /ŋ/; /w/ and /j/) with some differences in phonotactic constraints, which I will explore later in this discussion.

What does “in common” tell us that “have the same” does not? Nothing. It’s redundant and unnecessary. (Cut from the team!) Furthermore, “two” is unbearably unnecessary considering that this comes from an analysis comparing exactly two languages’ sound systems. (You’re out!) And while we’re at it, announcing that I would explore the topic later “in the discussion” was probably just as superfluous—where else would I mean? If we’re worried about “later” seeming lonely at the end of the sentence (and I do worry about words feeling lonely), perhaps “in a later section” would work better.

Let’s look at one more:

According to the informants, these words are reported to be palatalized in rapid, casual speech as /ʤan/ and /ʤos/, whereas standard, deliberate, and formal pronunciations would be produced as /djan/ and /djos/.

Having been disconnected from the manuscript for several years at this point, the phrase “are reported to” above seems blatantly needless to me now, not to mention nonsensical if you reflect on it for a moment longer (my informants explained some variation and produced the sound for me—they did not tell me that it has been reported that the sound is sometimes palatalized!).

Clearly, not even cautious writers are safe from the pitfalls of excessive, needless language. We can do our messages justice with fewer words and greater precision, especially in academic writing where content brings its own weight in complexity.

Strengthen Your Writing: Clear the Clutter

Let’s get economical. Below, I’ve shared some sample sentences taken either from my own writing or from clients who’ve kindly agreed to let their work be shared anonymously. Take a look and consider how you might improve them. Are there any needless words that can be removed? Are there complicated, wordy phrases that can be replaced with a simpler one? After you’ve examined the samples and imagined a solution, compare your approach to mine.

  1. In his own study, Wikström (2014) demonstrated the way that hashtags are multifunctional linguistic devices, facilitating far more than mere topic classification.
  2. However infrequent, it is true that whom continues to serve a purpose in certain genres, and, indeed, some writers still make use of it appropriately, even if they are confined to academia and scholarly writing.
  3. The connection between the first two criteria and size is less straightforward than simply stating “more is better.”
  4. During the interview, it became quite clear that the informant’s view of herself in terms of her cultural identity was far from simple. When asked where she is from, she responded, “I’m from Syria,” and yet this is only a part of the answer.
  5. This may be viewed as an example of scaffolding that is “contingent on actual need” (Van Patten & Williams, 2007, loc. 5559), as Milly provides only that which is minimally necessary for Lacy to make the appropriate connections. The explanations do not provide anything beyond what Lacy needs.

Finally, consider the three variations of the same sentence below, ranging from needlessly wordy to simple and precise:

  • To speak as frankly as possible my dear, I really just don’t give much of a damn.
  • To speak frankly my dear, I just don’t give a damn.
  • Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

The added words (and unforgivable hedging) do nothing more than dilute the utterance of whatever quality made Rhett so perfectly quotable. So, what’s the take away?

Extra words don’t give extra meaning. In academic writing, long and complex sentences are inevitable. Ease the task of your reader and give your manuscript readability. If you’ve got an editor that you trust, take a long, hard look at the words that he or she nominated for removal and consider the possibility that fewer words can actually accomplish more.


American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Zinsser, W. (1976/2006). On writing well. New York, NY: HarperCollins.