Writing Resources

Posts about useful books, materials, classes, and other resources for the freelance writer.

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social-media-419944_640So you’re well on your way to a blossoming freelance writing career. You’ve got plenty of publishing credits to your name, clients with upcoming projects tailored just for you, and fresh ideas for writing pieces you plan to tackle this year. What more do you need to succeed? You might say nothing—but you’d be wrong. There are some key must-haves for experienced (and not-so-experienced) writers that fall outside the obvious. Here are five that come to mind:

  1. Social media presence. If you haven’t opened an account on Facebook, twitter, or linked in yet, it’s time to get on the bandwagon. Having a social media presence is essential for today’s freelance writer. Not only does social media help you network with other writers, it’s also one of the best ways to promote yourself and your work and to find new gigs—all key to success.
  2. Goals. Without goals, you won’t get very far in your freelance writing career. Goals give you something to work toward and help you complete steps along your writing journey. Goals can be short term or long term, simple or complex. They are also subject to alteration. The most important thing is to write goals down and take them seriously. Then, feel the joy and rewards of crossing them off, one by one.
  3. Daily inspiration. This might come in the form of a book of daily writing prompts, a tweet from a favorite author, or an activity that spurs you on and gives you motivation. You can also get daily inspiration by simply reading a chapter of an engaging novel. Anything that gets your creative juices flowing, even if it’s just a morning jog or a cup of joe, can be all the inspiration you need.
  4. Writing support. Writing is a solo act, but it shouldn’t be a lonely one. In fact, acquiring writing friends, mentors, and supporters is a necessary part of becoming a successful freelance writer. Social media is a great way to round up writing friends, but don’t leave out those who have helped advance your career by encouraging you to pursue your dreams, like spouses, long-time friends, librarians, and teachers.
  5. Desire to improve. Writing is an ongoing process that always has room for improvement. The more you strive to improve, the more developed your writing will become. You may write what you think is your best effort, but it won’t be the best piece you can ever write. A desire to improve is a necessary mindset for success. Without it, you may miss out on drafting some of your most amazing work yet.

If you’re an experienced writer, a novice, or anything in between, what must-haves make your list?

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book-92771_640Fall is back-to-school time for many young people, but you don’t have to be young or a student to take a class. In fact, anyone can benefit from classes, no matter what the subject. That’s especially true for writers. Taking a class on art or health or business can give writers new knowledge on a topic they may have never before explored. And that new knowledge can lead to valuable expertise—and a new avenue for their writing. No matter where you live, there are plenty of places that offer classes—libraries, writing centers, universities, historical societies, and many other private and nonprofit organizations. Minnesota writers have a slew of opportunities available statewide. Here are a few worthy options to consider:

  1. University of Minnesota’s LearningLife Program. The Learning Life Program at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Continuing Education offers learning opportunities that include short classes, weekly seminars, and one-day immersions. Class subjects range from art and design to to science and the environment. There is usually a course fee, but prices are reasonable—from $15 to $160.
  2. Whole foods co-op classes.  Check with your local whole foods co-op for a listing of classes on a variety of health, cooking, and nutrition courses. These courses provide insight into healthy living and offer many hands-on opportunities for learning. Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville, for example, has a variety of courses for both members and nonmembers, from gardening classes to gluten-free eating. Class size is usually limited, so be sure to enroll early.
  3. Hennepin County Library courses. Any county library will likely have a range of classes for adults on many topics, but the Hennepin County Library has an extensive listing. Depending on which library within the Hennepin County Library system you choose, classes cover everything from art to languages to knitting. Most library classes are free and open to the public.
  4. Science Museum of Minnesota’s Computer Education Center. The Science Museum of Minnesota offers over 200 courses in 80+ computer-related subjects through its Computer Education Center. If you want to learn basic computer skills, how to be effective with social media, or something more specific or complex, like JavaScript or PhotoShop, check out this listing of learning possibilities.

Along with the changing leaves, fall is a great time to switch gears. Take a class, and learn something new. You may not become an expert on the subject with just one class, but you will gain valuable knowledge that you can apply to your writing. And who knows? It may open up a whole new chapter in your writing life.

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thesaurus pageIf you don’t already own a good thesaurus, now’s the time to invest in one. A thesaurus isn’t just a useful writing tool; it can turn out to be one of your most valuable resources and one you’ll find hard to live without. I like to compare a thesaurus to a best friend. Here’s why:

It makes you better. The purpose of a thesaurus is to help you discover the right word choice. No two words are exactly the same; synonyms have similar meanings but different connotations. Sometimes, a dictionary is necessary to use alongside a thesaurus to help you determine the best word fit. But a thesaurus is the tool that helps you choose exactly which word you mean to use so that your message is accurately and clearly conveyed.

It’s there for you every day. And, trust me, you’ll refer to it every day. A thesaurus is by your side as you write, there at every minute to advise you. It’s accessible, convenient, easy to follow, reliable, and full of good ideas…just like a best friend.

You’ll wish you had two. The only thing better than one best friend is two best friends. Thesauruses are no different. I have a large hardcover thesaurus and a smaller, paperback one. They are completely different in design and format, but they both serve me well. When one thesaurus doesn’t come through, the other invariably does.

It’ll help you out of tricky situations. When you’re stuck, do you call on your best friend? In writing, a thesaurus serves the same function. Often, we writers get stuck mid-sentence, hung up on trying to find that perfect word. Thesauruses can whisk you out of a roadblock and get you back on track. You may not know right away what word you’re looking for, but one word leads to another and another, until finally, there it is—the word!—dancing on the page, luring you back to work.

It’s different from the others. Though full of words, like a style guide or a dictionary or a usage manual, a thesaurus isn’t one of them at all. It holds a unique place in a writer’s life. It’s a gift of just words—a stockpile of vocabulary, neatly arranged, simple yet not superficial, and unlike any other resource of its kind.

So, like a best friend, a good thesaurus is indispensable…and well worth the time and effort it takes to find a good one. Be sure to research thesauruses thoroughly before investing in one. Each thesaurus has different features from the others. If, for example, you prefer an all-in-one dictionary and thesaurus book, take a look at Merriam Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus. Want your thesaurus to include handy usage notes and real-life sample sentences? Check out the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. For a classic, comprehensive thesaurus, you might consider Roget’s International Thesaurus.

Of course, you can always refer to an online thesaurus, such as Thesaurus.com; however, I find that having a physical book to page through makes my job of finding that perfect word easier, handier, and—most importantly—more fruitful.

 

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There’s a lot to love about the state of Minnesota, but if you’re a writer living here, there’s even more to appreciate—all the great writing-related organizations. Whether you’re looking for an editor, a place to meet and network with other writers, or a writing class, the six listed below offer invaluable help, resources, and support. Take a look:

  • Professional Editors Network (PEN). An organization for editors and others who work with words, PEN offers many benefits to its members, including monthly meetings, resources for writers and editors, and a place to network with other writing professionals. PEN’s website includes a directory of mostly local editors. Yearly dues: $35.
  • The MidTown Writers Meetup Group. For a fun, no pressure morning of writing, you can join the MidTown Writers Meetup Group Saturday mornings at A La Salsa restaurant in Minneapolis. The group is given a prompt to begin the writing session. No critiquing is done, but you have the option to share your writing with the group.
  • The Loft Literary Center. This well-known literary center in the Open Book building on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis offers writing classes, contests, conferences, resources, readings, and more. You do not need to become a member to use The Loft, but a membership contribution provides you with discounts to Loft events.

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  • MN Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.The local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writer’s & Illustrators, the MN SCBWI is a great resource for those interested in networking with other children’s writers in the area. This group hosts “monthly mixers,” workshops, and conferences at various locations around the Twin Cities. Free with national SCBWI annual membership.
  • Midwest Fiction Writers. According to its website, the MFW is a “professional writing organization that includes approximately 100 published or aspiring writers. Under the broad umbrella of romance, our members write historical, contemporaries, time travels, suspense, erotic, women’s fiction – to name just a few.” The MFW meets every second Saturday at the Edina Community Center. Annual dues: $35.
  • Minnesota Center for Book Arts. A place for anyone interested in celebrating book arts, from papermaking to book binding to self-publishing techniques. The MCBA is located in the Open Book building, along with The Loft, and offers a variety of workshops, artists programs, and events. Membership includes discounts and invitations to MCBA-sponsored events. Individual membership: $40.

If you’ve joined or heard of any other Minnesota writing organizations that have helped you or inspired your writing life, please share them here!

Image by Grn1749

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I am one of those people who don’t throw much away, so it’s been hard for me to part with my dictionary. It’s a jacketless Merriam Webster that’s decades old and worn. Any other writer would have replaced it long ago.

But now that Christmas is around the corner, I’ve got a new dictionary on my list. Choosing a specific dictionary was a big decision for me, especially given the number of dictionaries out there to consider. I wanted to make sure that the one I settled on would serve me well as a writer.

So how did I narrow down my choice?  I began by asking myself three important questions:

  1. What don’t I like about my current dictionary? Age isn’t the only problem with my current dictionary. Other things about it bother me, like the way it’s organized, the fact that I can’t always find a word I’m looking for, and the lack of useful front and back matter. By reflecting on what I don’t like about my dictionary, I came up with criteria that I wanted for my new one.
  2. Does size matter? For me, the answer was no. I have space to use and store any size dictionary. The advantage of big dictionaries is that they’re generally more comprehensive. But big dictionaries take up desk space, weigh more, and can be cumbersome for some people. Medium and smaller dictionaries are more compact and convenient but may not contain many extras.
  3. How much am I willing to spend? Or, in my case, how much is my husband willing to spend on a dictionary? It’s a valid question because, as I quickly discovered, dictionaries can be costly. The one I chose isn’t cheap, but I felt it was worth the money. Since my current dictionary has lasted me nearly twenty years, I expect I won’t be replacing my new one for quite some time.

With those three questions answered, I decided on The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th Ed.). Of course, I won’t know if my choice was right until I actually start using it. But for now, I eagerly await Christmas morning and my new writing resource—not to mention the look on my kids’ faces when they see how excited I’ll be over a dictionary!

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When I moved to Minnesota, I didn’t spend much time at my local public library. I would drop in now and then and check out children’s books for my young kids. Every once in a while, I’d browse through the adult section, but I was more likely to head to Barnes & Noble for reading material. Little did I know back then how important the public library would become to me—not so much as a reader but as a writer.

Today, the library is the first place I go for research, even if it’s just background reading on a subject. I take full advantage of all the books, periodicals, microfilm, databases, and more that my library has to offer. If I can’t find something I’m looking for, the reference librarians are usually able to find it at another library or direct me to where I might have better luck. But I don’t just go to the public library for research; I sometimes spend entire afternoons writing in a cubicle at the library. And why not? It’s close by, easy to navigate, welcoming, peaceful—and free!

Whether you’re new to writing or not, making friends with your public library is something you’ll definitely want to do. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your relationship:

  • If your public library has a website, visit it first. Sometimes, the information you need is available online, plus it’s a good idea to learn about the library, its branches, and its holdings before going there in person.
  • Get acquainted with the reference librarians at your library, and let them know you’re a writer. Not only are librarians extraordinarily helpful and knowledgeable, they make good contacts for writers.
  • Remember to take advantage of interlibrary loan possibilities. Public libraries may not carry the type of research you’re looking for, but they often have access to other libraries that do.
  • Interested in joining a critique group, taking a class, or attending an author visit? Check to see if your library hosts any writing-related events in their meeting rooms.
  • Give back to your library by donating any books or other materials that you no longer need, volunteering, or becoming a member of a Friends of the Library group, which is dedicated to supporting the public library.

If you haven’t already, get to know your public library, and enjoy the many benefits this indispensable “friend” has to offer.

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Attending a writing event is a great way for writers to learn, network, and make some friends. And with so many options offered, it’s easy to find something that suits your needs or wants. But before registering for a writing event – which may or may not involve a fee – I have one recommendation: know what you’re signing up for.

I learned this recently, when I attended a writer’s workshop that was led by a local author. While I was expecting a lengthy presentation on the topic, followed by some writing and discussion, I got a brief presentation, a bit of discussion, but mostly writers doing exercises, reading from their manuscripts, and critiquing each other’s work. Yes, workshop implies work – and in this case, lots of it.

No one can predict exactly what will go on during a writing event, not even the event coordinator (who, in my situation, led me a tad astray), but knowing something about the typical format in advance helps. Here’s a breakdown of the different types of writing events available and what you might expect to get from each one:

  • Conference – an organized, day or longer writing event that involves large-group presentations and smaller, breakout sessions. Keynote speakers, book signings, manuscript critiques, social hours, and meals are often included.
  • Workshop – a hands-on learning session where participants perform writing exercises, discuss writing issues, and share their work for feedback.
  • Round table – implies an open discussion, where everyone has an equal voice; there is no leader or “head” of the table.
  • Forum – a general term that refers to a place where writers congregate to discuss, ask questions, get information, or conference, online or in person; sometimes a presenter leads.
  • Critique group – a meeting with a group of writers to read and analyze each other’s work.
  • Class – a course of study on a particular aspect of writing, led by an instructor.
  • Presentation – a writing professional speaks to a group, sharing expertise on a topic or experience; often includes a question-and-answer period.
  • Reading – a published author reads from his or her work; may involve a short presentation.

If you’re still confused about the format of an event, contact the person or organization hosting the event and try to get answers to your questions. And be sure to find out if preregistration is necessary and whether a fee is involved. Writing events are great resources for writers, but to make them worth your time and money, do the research first.

(Image by Rick Audet)

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New writers looking for advice from published authors are often told to read, read, read. Reading, they say, helps make you a better writer. A great tip, except that some writers are left wondering what exactly they should be reading and how they should be reading it.

When I read, I do it as a reader first. I start by choosing books that I want to read.  Often, they’re books that have been recommended to me or books that I’ve read about. I don’t just settle on one genre or type of publication, either. Naturally, if I’m working on a children’s book manuscript, I’ll read several books that have been published for that age group. But reading any material helps me as a writer.

A page-turning thriller helps me see how pace and action are used to move the plot forward. Historical fiction novels show how to incorporate authentic details and believable dialogue into an engaging story. Magazine pieces, blog posts, and journal articles provide examples of tight writing as well as satisfying introductions and conclusions. Even that fluffy romance novel has something useful to offer me about character development and creating emotional tension.

When I read, however, I don’t analyze the writing or take notes or pick apart sentences and paragraphs. That would ruin the reading experience for me. Still, I absorb a lot of information. In fact, reading helps me with all kinds of writing issues, including technique, voice, style, spelling, word choice, grammar, chapter length, titles, topics, and names. I take in all these things and more—without actually trying. And I imagine I’m not alone; we writers notice a lot more than we think we do when we read.

So new writers, follow that advice, and read, read, read. Anything and everything. But read as a reader first. You’ll not only enjoy the experience better, you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll learn as a writer.

Image by Onderwijsgek

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One of my summer projects is to get started writing a novel. It’s been about eight years since I wrote my last book, so I’ll admit I’m a little rusty. Worse, for me summer isn’t the most ideal time to write, with kids home from school, beautiful days beckoning me outside, and mini-vacations scattered through the months. But I’m determined to at least get started on my book, and so I’ve decided to begin with a notebook.

It’s actually a pretty good-sized notebook, the three-ring kind with lots of tabbed dividers. Putting together this notebook is a project of its own but one I think will pay off in the long run. Here’s what I plan to include in my notebook:

  1. Character profiles, or sketches of my main characters. (For how to write a character profile, check out this article.)
  2. A synopsis, or a short summary of the plot. (Of course, this will likely change, many times.)
  3. A working outline, with a working title.
  4. Early chapter drafts.
  5. Research sources and ideas.
  6. Notes.
  7. A listing of books to read or browse for examples.
  8. A miscellaneous section for extra papers, contacts, etc.
  9. Loose leaf paper.

One thing I’ve learned over the years: Getting started writing a novel (or any book, for that matter) takes time, patience, and focus. A novel notebook is a great way to ease in to the process, especially during the summer months when you may not be ready to plunge into a big project. So far, my notebook has been fun to organize, handy to use, and—above all—motivating. More important, each time I add to my notebook, I feel a sense of accomplishment; I’m one step closer to writing that novel.

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If writing a “to do” list sounds like one more thing to do, it is. But if you’re a writer, it may be one of the most useful things you can do. I keep a total of three “to do” lists for my writing—a long-term project list, a weekly goals list, and a daily task list. They take a little time to write, but I couldn't be a writer without them.

My long-term project list is the longest of the three. I write a new project list every season. Starting with my "active projects" (those I’m currently working on), I jot down each project, along with its status (waiting for reply from magazine, finishing final draft, etc.) and possible markets or deadlines. Next come the "future projects" (those I haven’t started), which often consist of mere ideas. Then I list any non-writing tasks I plan to complete in the next few months, like subscribing to a blog or joining a writing group. My project “to do” list is neatly typed, placed in a folder, and set aside for easy access.

My second "to do" list is a handwritten list of weekly goals. I keep a 6 x 9 notebook, with each page devoted to a week. Every Friday, I draft a new list of things to do for the upcoming week. My weekly list usually contains five to ten items, things like doing research for an article, writing a query letter, and preparing an outline. I keep the notebook on my desk, open and with a pen for checking items off.

Finally, I write my daily task list on a sticky note pad. If I have many tasks to complete in a day, this list comes in really handy. On it I scribble everything I need to do that day—make a phone call, send an email, write a first draft, mail a submission—and put it in a spot where I can’t miss it, like on my computer screen or desktop.

As you might guess, I refer to my long-term project list when creating my weekly goals list and my weekly goals list when creating my daily task list—which makes the whole process of writing my "to do" lists pretty simple and smooth. And the payoff? They help keep me organized, disciplined, focused, and on track. Even better, they make me productive.

Sure, writing a "to do" list is one more thing to do, but it's a task I can't afford not to do.