Writing Resources & Tools

Let’s talk about writing resources and tools. The internet is a big, big place and there are more sites than you could possibly get through in a lifetime. Writers don’t just need sites about writing, they also need good research sites, basic information sites, distraction blockers, and much much more. Read on for a hodge-podge of sites that can come in handy during your writing adventures.

Dictionary, Thesaurus, and Reference Materials

Research

Writing Exercises & Prompts

Classes

A Nice Mix of Several Things

This is just a tiny sample of what is out there. The key to writing is finding what works for you and then running with it. Don’t be afraid to try new things and come back to some old things from time to time. Most of all–just write!

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Diamond shaped yellow sign with four-way screws at the top and bottom. The sign reads Work In Progress Writers' Conference in black with a black feather pen under the words.

6 Reasons Why You Should Attend Conferences

No matter what you are interested in writing, chances are there is a writing or book conference that covers it. Attending an event like this can be one of the most exciting, invigorating experiences for writers of all levels. New and experienced writers both benefit. Here are six reasons why you should attend conferences.

  1. Community – I can’t stress this enough, writers need a community of other writers even if it is just for a day, weekend, week, or whatever. Being around other writers who know and understand the creative process is a must. The common goal to learn and explore can inspire new works.
  2. Variety – Conferences come in all shapes and sizes. Some focus on specific genres or types of writing; others have a mix of everything from craft to the business side of being a writer. Some conferences may offer workshops or panel discussions or a blend of both. Conferences that provide a wide variety of topics also has a wide range of speakers. The people presenting or sitting on panels may be other writers like you, or they could be agents, publishers, editors, or designers.
  3. Exploration – With the variety, comes an excellent opportunity to explore. When you attend a conference, you should attend at least one session that is on a format, genre, or method you usually don’t write. For example, I write genre fiction. Over the years, I’ve attended poetry workshops and panels on writing biographies. I’m not a poet, and I can’t imagine taking on a research-intensive project like a biography. However, I was able to pull pieces from each that improved my writing.
  4. Discovery – The conference will most likely have authors on the schedule to speak or present that are unfamiliar to you. Do a little research on the author beforehand and pick a couple to see. It’s a great way to learn what worked for them and what didn’t. Try those things, both what worked and what didn’t, in your writing to continue discovering your style.
  5. Availability – There’s a writing or book-related event going on every single week of the year. Ok, maybe not every single week, but there are a lot of them. Check your local library, independent bookstores, visitors bureau, colleges or universities, national or state parks, and more. There are several book festivals throughout the United States that feature writers talking about their books and writing process. Additionally, many states or regions have writing organizations that host conferences. National or state parks are often overlooked, but they will sometimes bring in authors as part of the entertainment for campers or are the site of various conferences.
  6. Camaraderie – Most conferences also include mixers or signings where you can engage with the people who presented or talked during the workshops, panels, and discussions. Conferences are a great way to network with other writers, publishers, editors, or others. The word of caution here:  Don’t pitch your work unless it is an actual pitch session. Your goal is to be authentic and have an open dialog with the presenters and panelists.

No matter where you are in your writing journey, attending a conference can be the inspiration you need. Spend time with other writers, readers, and book people to refill your creative well. Conferences are a great way to explore different aspects of writing and discover new authors. I only list six reasons why you should attend a conference, but there are so many more. Feel free to add your reason in the comments.

Black background with white text in all caps saying I challenge you

9 Reasons Why You Should Try a Group Writing Challenge

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others:  read a lot and write a lot.” -Stephen King

Writing can be a lonely, hard thing to do. First, you have to find the time to write, and then you have to protect that writing time. Once you get a writing routine going, then questions start to come up that you need a tribe to help you answer. We’ve talked about writing groups as a way to add some accountability and support to your writing routine. Now, let’s take a look at another way you can find your people:  group writing challenges.

Here are nine reasons why you should try a group writing challenge:

  1. Built-in Community: A group writing challenge is full of people who have usually signed up and committed to a similar goal. This shared goal already puts you on a level playing field with like-minded teammates. Each person is striving to hit a word count, a page count, a specific number of new poems or story ideas or whatever. 
  2. Variety: There are as many group writing challenges as there are writers. Ok, maybe not that many, but there are a lot out there. Each one usually does a pretty good job of explaining the challenge parameters to let you pick what is going to work best for you.
  3. Duration: You can find group writing challenges that last a week, a month, a quarter, a year, or some other length of time to fit a theme. Experiment with what works best for you and your schedule. Challenges that happen over a short period are typically repeated a few times throughout the year. Weekly challenges may happen every week with different themes allowing you to participate when you want and sit out when the subject doesn’t inspire you.
  4. Accountability: Most challenges include a process for checking-in or giving updates on your work. These updates from the participants provide a way to cheer each other on to the finish line. Seeing others move steadily closer to the goal is a great motivator. Not to mention that needing to post your progress will help you stay on track.
  5. Freedom: The purpose of most group writing challenges is to write. Write quickly. Write without your inner editor making you stop to question where the commas go (or don’t go). You are free to write badly in the interest of getting the idea and words onto the page. Let your mind take over and write or type or talk the story onto the page. You can always go back later and edit.
  6. Customization: You’ve researched the various challenges out there and picked the one that best fits your needs. From that point, you may still need to tweak the assignment a little to make it fit your specific project. That’s perfectly fine. Go ahead, do it. Yes, there may be challenge rules or guidelines. There may be people participating who insist you have to do everything by the challenge rules or fail. Never mind all that. Do what makes sense for you and your process. Do it respectfully and don’t demand everyone else participating do what you are doing to bend the rules.
  7. Pajamas Encouraged: Most challenges are based entirely online. There may be chances for face-to-face meetings for people in the same area, but those are typically not required for participation. You can write in your pajamas or whatever makes you feel the most comfortable and creative.
  8. Budget-Friendly: Most challenges are free to join and participate. Of course, you sign up with your email address which means you are on their mailing list, but most have an opt-in/out option when you sign up. The freebie challenges may ask for donations or have merchandise that you can buy to help support things like websites and hosting, guest authors, or other costs involved in running the challenge. There are a few challenges with low-cost membership fees that may also give you access to other writing resources or services.
  9. Rewards: Yes, there may sometimes be prizes (especially in pay-to-participate challenges). For some of the larger group writing challenges, you can win prize money or discounts on writing software and books. Smaller groups may offer reward points or tokens that can be traded in for critiques or other writing services. All challenges award bragging rights and a feeling ofaccomplishment for hitting the goal!

Who’s ready to try a group writing challenge? You are welcome to use Google to find your own, but I’ve listed a few below that you may want to check out.

  1. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starts in November
  2. Camp NaNoWriMo happens in April and July
  3. YeahWrite has new challenges each week (Looks like a paid membership is needed.)
  4. A Round of Words in 80 Days (ROW80) starts four different times throughout the year (Not to be confused with Around the World in 80 Days.)

Thanks for reading!

Text says Building Your Author Platform. Picture of a podium with an iPad or tablet screen for a top and a microphone.

Building an Author Platform

Once you start writing, you quickly learn that writing isn’t just writing. You find out there’s more to the craft than just putting words on a page, and you have to wear many hats on your way to meeting your writing goal. Assuming your goal is to be published, one thing you will need to be able to do is to market your work regardless of whether you self-publish or are picked up by a publisher.

Building an author platform is one critical step to helping you market your work. You can start building your platform right now even if you aren’t published–yet. Launching your platform before you are published is actually to your advantage.

What is an Author Platform & Why Do You Need One?

Simply put, your author platform is your online presence. It can include social media, a website, a blog, a newsletter, a mailing list, or whatever fits your style and target audience. It is the place where you can share what you are learning, what you are writing about, the writing class you are taking, or anything else that influences you as a writer. Your platform should be a way for you to connect with other people who might be interested in your work.

Having a platform for your work isn’t required. It is something else that you have to learn to work into your schedule, but the time you spend engaging with others will pay off in the long run. Self-publishing comes with a need to be a self-promoter to market your book and being able to show a local bookstore owner that you have 200 local followers who might want your book is a powerful motivator to put your book on their shelf.

Benefits of Building an Author Platform

Aside from the potential sales avenue, a platform has several other benefits too. Writing can be a lonely task. Your followers give you an outlet to connect to other writers and readers alike. As you share more insights or snippets of your work, the positive reactions and “where can I read more” are great morale boosters. By starting early, you can test what works and what doesn’t to make adjustments before you ever have a book out in the world.

You can also use your platform to take your readers on the writing journey. There will be people who follow you who are readers only and some of them may be reading a book or two a week–or more! Very few readers realize the book they just finished in 24 hours, may have taken the author five or more YEARS to write. Use your platform to talk about the writing process from start to finish.

Using Social Media

Your readers and followers will come from all walks of life. Social media will likely make up a part of your author platform. Where possible, try to separate your personal accounts and your author accounts, even if you are using your name as your author name. For example, you can have your personal profile on Facebook and keep it limited to people you know in real life, and build a fan Page for your author profile. Both may have your name, but the Page allows people to follow your writing updates without needing to become your “friend” to view your posts. Also, using two or more different social media sites can help you reach a broader audience as you are starting. Then you can narrow your scope to your target audience and adjust to the site they seem to favor. For example, if you are writing Young Adult, you may want to be more active on Instagram or Snapchat (as of this post anyway). If you are writing Women’s Lit, Facebook is where you may want to be more active.

Regardless of which sites you choose, use the features on each site to your advantage. Each site should have some performance measurements you can use. Check the analytics details every two weeks or at least once a month. The data can help you determine what posts get the most interaction and what posts fall flat. You can also get data that shows when your followers are online the most, and so much more.

Plan What You Post

Using social media tools to your advantage can help you save time. Another great time-saver is planning what you post and where you want to post it. Could you imagine trying to read this article on Facebook or Twitter? It wouldn’t work–this is way too long for those sites. Yes, this will be linked on a Facebook page with a preview, but you still have to come here to read the full thing.

Take some time to write down the dates you want to posts, where you want to post, and what you want to post. This list is called your editorial calendar. You can have a theme if you wish to or share information. Anything that draws your reader in and gets them to interact with you can be a social media post or blog post.

One word of caution, if you choose to share your actual writing–your short stories, poems, novels, etc.–some publishers and journals consider that to be “published.” Posting your actual work can impact your eligibility for contests, prizes, or an agent/editor picking up your work. Be highly selective in what works you share.

Building an author platform does take time to start and maintain. You have to put time into getting followers, posting engaging content, and interacting with your new-found fans. It can seem like it is taking away from your writing time, but by using built-in time savers on the sites you use and planning what you post, you can build a robust platform. Start those conversations with your fans now, well before your first (or next) book is released.

setting up a writing room

How to Set up Your Writing Space

In 1928, Virginia Woolf gave two lectures on women and fiction. In those lectures, she said, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” While her topic was specifically directed at women, I think this really applies to anyone writing. The heart of her “money and a room” theory is that you need time, a place, and some sort of financial stability to be a writer.

In my post How to Make Time to Write–Simple Strategies, we talked about finding time to write throughout the day. By now, maybe you’ve developed a writing habit. Now let’s focus on setting up your writing space to maximize the writing time you have. Your writing space can be as simple or as elaborate as you want. The flexibility is endless when it comes to establishing a space, or a room of your own, for writing.

Your One and Only Space

There is no such thing as a writer having only one place where they write. You may have a favorite place, but it doesn’t have to be your only writing place. Even if you don’t use the space more than two or three times a week, it is still important to establish a place you can call your own for your writing. Depending on how much room you have in your home, you could have a couple of spots you can claim as your own. Setting up your writing space is important, but by limiting yourself to one spot and one spot only, you can end up stifling your creativity. Build your primary space, but give yourself permission to work elsewhere when you want to or need to do so.

You Aren’t Chained to a Desk

As you think about how to set up your writing space, remember you don’t have to work at a desk or computer. At least not all the time. Think about what makes you the most comfortable and relaxed. If you would prefer to use a pen or pencil and paper while sitting in a cushy chair, then make that your writing space. Some writers I know have converted a closet into a writing nook while others have converted storage sheds or garages into places for them to write. If the weather in your area allows for it, maybe a porch or garden would make for an ideal writing area. The area you claim really can be anywhere as long as it gives you privacy and is distraction-free so you can focus on your writing.

Your Toolbox

Once you’ve claimed your spot, it’s time to start adding the things you will need. During this phase, I do encourage you to consider your equipment. First, if you are doing to use a desk and office chair, pay attention to ergonomics. Ergonomics, in a nutshell, is arranging the things you use most in a safe and efficient way. For example, you shouldn’t have to stretch up or lean down to use a keyboard or laptop on a desk. If you are sitting in an uncomfortable position, it can interrupt the flow of your work (not to mention cause some serious health issues long term). If you are using a laptop or electronic tablet, make sure it is charged or you have access to a power outlet during your writing session. If you prefer handwriting, be sure you have an extra notebook and pens or pencils. You may also want to keep any reference guides you are using nearby as well. Remember, if the equipment you are using isn’t working properly, neither are you.

Adding a Touch of Inspiration

The tools you add to your space shouldn’t be limited to the practical. You want to add things that inspire you as well. Hang up pictures of your favorite authors and books. Put your own awards or proud writing moments out where you can see them. Think about why you want to write and incorporate that why into your space as well. Many writers have a special totem or nicknack that they keep with them as they write, and it could be something different for each project. Paint the walls your favorite color if you can. Whatever makes you feel creative and makes you feel like writing is the thing you need to do when you are in your space.

Take it to Go

Your writing space should be your go-to place for writing, but remember I said earlier that it doesn’t have to be your only spot. In addition to setting up your writing space at home, think about what you need to take your writing on the go. You have to be prepared to take back those small chunks of time to write while you are waiting in the doctor’s office, at a child’s sports practice, or whatever. Take the time to set up a writing go-bag to take a part of your writing space with you. Make sure whatever you carry your items in is big enough for your laptop, electronic tablet, notebooks, pens, reference books, etc. Don’t go too overboard or you won’t be able to carry it! If you can get the basics you need for the project you are working on in the bag, then you should be good to go.

Now you are prepared to claim some part of your home for writing and writing only. The space you choose can be anywhere in or around the house as long as you have the proper equipment in place to be productive. Don’t just focus on the must-have things like a computer or notebook, be sure to include something inspirational as well. The most important thing is figuring out what makes you comfortable and allows your muse to sing to you!

Grammarly Product Review – Write Better

  • Product: Grammarly
  • Price: Varies by subscription
  • Where to Buy: Grammarly.com
  • Features: Basic spellcheck to plagiarism detection
  • My Rating: 4.5 out 5

My morning routine is pretty simple. I get up and start a pot of coffee. With mug in hand, I catch up on news headlines and scroll through my Facebook news feed. Usually, within five minutes, I’ve found at least one grammar error either in a national news article or a Facebook post. While some of these errors are by choice—I like to slip in a “ya’ll” into my writing from time to time—most of the mistakes aren’t stylistic choices. 

I don’t consider myself an expert on grammar. You may find an error or two in my posts. I split my infinitives and use the wrong subject-verb agreement. I’ll re-write a sentence ten times to avoid having to figure out which tense of lay, lie, laid I need to use. I rely on grammar and spell check as I write and publish online. Which brings us to my Grammarly product review.

My Overview

Because I know I am prone to writing mistakes, I went on a search for a robust spelling and grammar checker than the features built into Microsoft Word and other word processing programs. The built-in spelling and grammar checker will catch most things, but don’t go beyond the basics. Even after adjusting the settings, I still felt like the word processing programs weren’t offering the level of support I wanted. I needed something better. That’s when I found Grammarly.

Grammarly has several options available in their free web-based checker and offers a more comprehensive checker through a paid monthly subscription. The free version performs basic spelling and grammar checks directly through the Grammarly.com site or a browser extension. The free checker catches some of the more common errors other grammar and spelling checkers miss. You can also access the Grammarly Handbook, Facebook community, Twitter account, and blog.

Why I Opted for a Paid Subscription

You may not consider yourself a writer or a publisher, and feel the free service is sufficient for your needs. However, if you are posting on social media, hosting a blog, writing emails and reports for your job, or even hosting a podcast where you follow a script, you are a writer and a publisher. In our content-rich society, we are writing more and making it public more often than at any other time in history.

If you are regularly writing and publishing content, consider the paid premium service. You can pay by the month, or you can save money by using the annual billing option. The Premium service performs over 400 checks and allows you to use Grammarly almost anywhere you type a word. Grammarly Premium performs advanced checks for context and structure in addition to giving you vocabulary suggestions. (For example, it is telling me “checks” in the previous sentence is repetitive and suggests I use “tests” instead.) A premium subscription also checks over 16 million web pages to detect plagiarism.

Grammarly Premium has an add-in for Microsoft Office for Windows, a Grammarly keyboard for iOS and Android, and offers a browser extension for several popular browsers. Also, it works on several popular websites for posts and comments. Your subscription works across multiple devices, too making it easy to continue writing near error-free content no matter where you are. 

For those into online badges, rewards, and stats, Grammarly also sends a personalized weekly email with fun, yet informative stat. The email lists your top three errors and links to more information on how to fix those errors. There are badges for consecutive weeks of use, and the email also tells you how you stack up to other Grammarly users regarding productivity and accuracy.

Why 4.5 of 5?

My Grammarly product review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning a few minor annoyances. Honestly, these issues are nothing more than my pet peeves, but I still felt as if they are worth adding. For context, I’m a Premium subscriber and use Windows PCs almost exclusively. I use Grammarly when writing content for my website and for writing fiction. I also use my subscription at my “day job” to write emails and reports. Here’s what bugs me:

  1. In Word, Grammarly uses a flyout box to the right of the screen. You can resize it, but it still takes up screen space. You can toggle it on and off, but I like to see the errors as I type.
  2. In Outlook, when replying to an email, you have to open the composer in a new window—so the flyout box can open. You still have to open the composer in a new window even if you toggle off the flyout box.
  3. Grammarly scans the entire document or email string for errors. While you may not be proofreading other people’s work, Grammarly does. I would love to see a feature that lets you select what portion of a document to scan. Also, it flags a mistake for not having a comma after the year in the header information of an email. For example, the header will say “January 1, 2018 5:00” and Grammarly knows that in a sentence there should be a comma after the eight so, it flags it as an error.
  4. Closing out Word seems to take a few seconds longer when Grammarly is enabled. 

Small annoyances aside, of course, Grammarly isn’t perfect. As with any spellcheck and grammar program, there are instances where a correctly spelled word that has been misused will go unflagged. Still, Grammarly is one of the best grammar and spelling checkers I’ve used. I can see a long, long relationship with Grammarly. Whether you use the free version to catch critical errors or you upgrade to the Premium version, your readers will be able to see the difference in your work!

How to Handle Criticism as a New Writer

You’ve started writing. You’re excited about your work, and you want to talk about it more. Maybe even let a few people read something you wrote. There is a delicate balance between allowing your creativity to grow organically and getting feedback to help your skills as a writer improve. Sharing your work for the first time can be scary. What happens when the feedback hurts? There are a few ways to prepare yourself for constructive criticism.

Sharing Your Work Too Soon

There is such a thing as sharing your work too soon. If you are still getting your feet on the ground and experimenting with what kind of writer you are, hold off on sharing your work for now. Writing, even if you aren’t writing about yourself, is highly personal. Your writing is a part of you. The words on the page are your thoughts, dreams, fears, and so much more. Showing someone your work before you are mentally and emotionally ready for criticism can be a significant setback. Learning to take constructive criticism as feedback on your work and not feedback on you as a person takes time. Keep in mind most pianists don’t sit down in front of an audience at Carnegie Hall and perform within their first few days of starting lessons. Give yourself time to become comfortable with your work.

Who Should & Shouldn’t Reading Your Work

Once you are comfortable with your work, you should start showing it to someone who can help you grow and develop as a writer. Figuring out who should and shouldn’t read your work is the challenge. If you have found a writing group you like, that is a perfect audience. Each member of your writing group was a new writer at some point and, they hopefully have some skill at delivering constructive criticism. Without a writing group, look for friends who are avid readers, bonus points if they happen to read your genre. You may also consider a trusted English or Literature teacher or professor. Another option is to reach out to a local author and ask if they would consider reading a short piece of your work. In general, avoid sharing your work with close family members who think everything you do is terrific. The feedback might be lovely, but probably won’t be the most helpful.

Have Specific Questions for Your Reader

No matter who you choose to share your work with, be prepared with questions for them. What do you want to know about your writing? Before you share your work, sit down, and think about what would be the most valuable feedback for you. Do you want to know if your characters are believable? Do you want to know if a specific action sequence makes sense? Do you want to know if you developed the setting well enough that the reader believed they were on a planet in another galaxy? Even something as simple as asking your reader what does or doesn’t work for them is a great place to start. Make a list of two or three things you want to know and give that list to your reader. A list of questions will help focus their comments on your writing.

Dealing with Just Plain Mean

Unfortunately, some people are just plain mean when it comes to giving feedback. Sometimes the person isn’t skilled at constructively providing feedback. Hearing a reader say they would throw your book out a window not only hurts, but it doesn’t have any value. Learning how to handle criticism as a new writer can be a challenge when faced with someone like this.

First and foremost, don’t get defensive. Push back for clarification as to why they may want to toss your tome out the window by asking probing questions. Ask for specifics, but don’t go down the rabbit hole of trying to explain your work to that person. You may also want to ask what genres or types of books they read and enjoy. If you write horror and they read romance, they may not know who to respond to your writing. If asking clarifying questions doesn’t help clarify the comment, thank them for the feedback and move on with your life. As the saying goes, you can’t please everyone. Personally, I like to think there is just a smidge of jealousy behind the nasty comments.

Finding the Nuggets of Gold

Once you have the right, bad, and ugly feedback, you have to shift through it to find the nuggets of feedback gold. While positive feedback may feel good, it may not have any value, like fools gold. The negative comments may be hard to hear, but they may be the nugget you are looking for to become a better writer. How do you know the difference? First, think about what resonates most with you as a writer. When writing, you will start to develop a sense of what isn’t on point for your work. Maybe you can’t find the exact phrasing for something, or you feel like a character is coming across as too flat. Your readers can help confirm or refute what you see in your work. Next, think about how many times you got the same or similar feedback on a particular aspect of your writing. There’s a “rule” often attributed to Stephen King that goes something like if more than one person says to change something in your writing, then consider replacing it. Even if the passage is one of your favorite parts, your darling, if more than one reader says it isn’t working, you need to consider changing or cutting it.

As a new writer, letting others read your work can help your work improve. Learning how to handle criticism as a new writer can be challenging. There are certainly pitfalls to sharing your work too early or sharing it with the wrong person. To keep your reader focused, be sure to ask direct questions of your readers to get the best feedback. Be prepared for all types of feedback, both good and bad as you start to share your work. Take some time to think about the feedback you receive. Remember, the comments are about your writing, not you. Dig in and look for the nuggets you can polish to make them shine in your writing.

Writing a Novel Outline – No Roman Numerals Needed

If you hear the word “outline” and start imagining Roman numerals and indenting, you aren’t alone. I remember trying to write outlines by hand in school and trying to make sure all my sections and subsections matched up. I remember teachers drilling it into us that we couldn’t have Point A without a Point B, and I’d have to try to figure out where the heck to put my lonely Point A.

Writing a novel outline is much different. It can look however you want it to look. If you are a Pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) or a Plotter (someone who has detailed outlines) or something in between, an overview will keep you and your novel on track.

A Twist on Traditional Outlining

When you think about writing a novel, or even a short story, another concept from your school days may come to mind too. You think of the plot structure diagram with the rising action, climax, and falling action. That plot diagram lends itself very well to the traditional concept of an outline.

Instead of setting up your story introduction as item I. on your outline, challenge yourself to change it. Try using a specific character or place in the story you are planning as your main points. See how differently your story develops by shifting the focus of your outline. For a character outline, make your top three headings something like childhood, teen years, five years ago, or 15 years from today. Work out a similar framework for your settings as well. For a place, think about what that place looked like in the past, how it has changed, what changed it, and how do all of those things play into your story.

When it comes time to write your story, take the overarching plot outline along with any character and setting outlines you developed to guide you. Keep all of your outlines within easy reach when you write and refer back to them often. Use those to help guide your story and keep you moving toward the next big plot event in your story. The critical thing to remember is that in the process of actually writing, you may find your characters are leading you down another path. Give yourself permission to go with them and revise your outlines. You may end up writing a novel outline based on the new direction, and that is great.

Beat Sheet

Using layered outlines like the ones described above is very similar to using a beat sheet. A beat sheet gives a snapshot of your story scene by scene. It could be a bullet point list, a chart, or just a simple numbered list. This method is sometimes more helpful when you know certain things will happen or have to happen in your story, but you aren’t entirely sure how or why those things happen. For example, your main character may wake up in the back seat of a Buick in a car impound lot, but you aren’t sure how or why this happens yet.

There are a few important terms you should know when writing a beat sheet. Most writers are familiar with the opening and the hook—or the “gotcha moment” where you grab the reader with the story. For a beat sheet, you will also add things like plot and pinch points in the rising action and the falling action. Plot points are things or events that drive the story forward and are usually stronger than a pinch point. A pinch point is a smaller scale event the character faces and overcomes. These points happen in predictable spots along the novel diagram.

Writing a novel outline using a beat sheet works well for fiction as well as screenplays, stage plays, memoir, biography, and much more. For more information on beat sheets, check out Larry Brooks—he is the master at using beat sheets. (Story Engineering by Larry Brooks)

Grid Sheets

Another approach that may work for people, especially those who tend to be more visual is a grid sheet. If you are a Harry Potter fan, chances are you have seen the picture of the J. K. Rowling’s notebook page with the lines and scribbles that she used when writing about the adventures of Harry and his pals at Hogwarts.

This variation on an outlining theme is nothing more than a sheet of paper or an Excel file if you want to be fancy, broken into boxes to track chapters, story timeline, scenes, and characters and events in the story scene by scene. Where a beat sheet could be a word, phrase, or sentence to identify a scene, a grid sheet lays out more detail about who and what is going on in a particular moment in your story.

Having a column for each character can help you identify plot holes and logistical issues within your story. For example, if you have a character hiding something in a Louisiana swamp in one scene, but then three pages later that same character is on a research mission in Antartica—you probably need to go back and do a little explaining for your reader.

Write the Synopsis First

One method I like and have used a couple of times now is writing my synopsis first. For those who may be newer to writing, a synopsis is a dreaded task for most writers that becomes important when you start to send your finished manuscript out to publishers or agents.

Most writers wait until they have at least the first draft of their novel before they tackle the synopsis. The purpose of the synopsis is to give a publisher or agent a detailed overview of the story, up to and including the actual ending. This summary of your story allows the publisher or agent to decide if they want to read your manuscript.

I think of it as working backward. I write a short paragraph for each significant event I believe will need to be in my story. I leave some space between these short paragraphs. Then I go back and fill in the spaces between the principal points with short sections detailing the scenes that will help get me from one major scene to the next. Of course, this changes as I get into the actual writing, but the synopsis is easily adjusted to keep pace with my story.

Which method is the best?

That is a question only you as the writer can answer. There are endless options for writing a novel outline. Some authors put everything down on index cards or post-it notes on a corkboard. You can devote an entire wall to plotting out a novel and connect the pieces with different color strings. Some writers have mountains of notebooks with their book notes. Some use things like Scrivener (see my review here) or other software to help organize their thoughts.

The key, as with most things when it comes to writing, is finding the method that works best for you. While the desired outcome is the same—to finish a brilliant novel—there are several ways to get there. Don’t be afraid to blend methods or change your approach for each project. There is no right or wrong way to get to the end of a novel.

Novel Writing Software Review – Scrivener

There are several programs on the market for writers proclaiming to help you write better and faster. The trick is finding the tool that makes you the most productive writer you can be. I like experimenting and trying new things, and I’d like to help you by posting a novel writing software review as I try out these different tools. Don’t worry if you aren’t writing a novel—I’ll point out useful features for other types of writing as well.

In this review, we’ll tackle Scrivener.

What is Scrivener

Scrivener is probably one of the most popular software programs for writers. It is a writing platform created by software company Literature & Latte founded in 2006 “by writers for writers.” If you visit their site, you may also notice they only have two products: Scrivener and Scapple. I view the product offerings as a sign of their focus to making one or in this case two, excellent products that meets the needs of their users instead of investing their resources on multiple cookie-cutter programs that tackle half the elements a writer needs.

L & L describes Scrivener as “Typewriter. Ring-binder. Scrapbook. Everything you need to craft your first draft.” The abundance of features is one of the reasons I wanted to start with a novel writing software review on Scrivener. When they say typewriter, they aren’t kidding. There is an actual setting called “Typewriter Scrolling” that will keep the line you are typing centered on your screen. The “ring-binder” allows you to see your entire project at a glance—including your notes and research. If you like to keep inspiring pictures for your project, you can add those too, thus the scrapbook reference.

One quick note before we move on to features: Scrivener offers software for macOS, iOS, and Windows. Most of my personal experience and basis for this review is with Windows (Scrivener version 1.9.7).

Notable Features

Scrivener has a very long list of features. Overall, the best feature is the amount of customization and control the user has within the software. Your project is contained in a file system called a binder that you can sort; you can add keywords and add color codes based on your project. As you edit, you can take snapshots of your work to create backup files and edit in dual screen mode. Once you’re done with your project, you have several options for compiling your work, including ePub and Mobi.

You can customize the settings to fit your personal preferences and project. You can quickly go from working on your book to working on your blog, etc. by customizing the tools for each project. The software comes with some preloaded templates for novels, scriptwriting, and non-fiction as well. There are thousands of more templates you can download from the online Scrivener community. If you’ve started your project elsewhere, you can import from other files, web pages, or other Scrivener files. 

Again, the binder is the central piece of any project in Scrivener. Within the binder, you can add and move files as needed, nest files and folders, and move pieces to research or trash. From the main project, you can view individual documents or get a broader project view in corkboard mode and outline mode. The corkboard generates a virtual index card for your project. You can add notes to remind you what each section or chapter includes and you can shuffle those index cards around as needed. At some point, while writing a novel, writers often have a storyboard or wall of post-it notes they use to track characters and events. The built-in corkboard is one of my favorite features—my cats can’t mess them up! Finally, the outline mode allows you to see the whole project combined.

Favorite Uses for Scrivener

I use Scrivener for my novel manuscripts and site content or blogging. 

For novel writing, I like being able to set up a folder for each character where I can put a picture–usually a celebrity who I would cast as that character in the movie version of my book–and a character profile. Once I complete a manuscript and move into the editing phase, I make a folder I call “Cuts” or “Dead Darlings.” This folder holds everything I have to cut because it doesn’t advance the story no matter how well-written. 

My favorite way to use Scrivener is to write site content and blogging. I have a project set up for site content and blogging where I can use the binder folders to create my editorial calendar. I use the notecards to list my topic, key points, keywords, links to resources, and a list of pictures I may need. 

I’ve recently started using the site content project set up for my freelance writing jobs. I have a folder for repeat clients and a folder for one-off assignments. Again, I can create a card with the client’s content request, resources, and the deadline to keep me on track. 

My favorite feature in Scrivener is Project Target. This handy feature is a word count tracker, but it allows you to set goals and shows you a progress tracking bar. You can set a goal for the entire project as well as individual session goals. It allows you to track by word or characters.

I don’t track by characters, and Twitter is the only place that comes to mind where character count matters. Also, Scrivener defines a “session” as each time the program opens. To get an accurate daily word count requires a little manual tracking and math.

What About the Downsides to Scrivener

So, what’s the downside to Scrivener? A novel writing software review wouldn’t be complete without a look at disadvantages. I could go back over the features listed above and point out minor things that annoy me. When I look at Scrivener, and I think about the negatives, two things stand out.

First, it is a massive program. Some things may be more intuitive than others, but overall, it takes time and training to learn how to use all of the features thoroughly. I feel as if I get a ton of value out of Scrivener based on my needs as a writer; however, there are several features I do not use at all and some I only use occasionally.

I wouldn’t recommend using Scrivener for the first time on a project with a deadline or as a participant in something like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) where speed matters. You could get by with a blank file or two in a folder; you won’t be able to take the time to learn the program. Wait until you can look over the built-in beginner’s guide, the 300+ page PDF Users Manual, or watch some YouTube video tutorials.

The other downside is related to the different versions mentioned earlier in this article. There are mainly three versions: macOS, iOS, and Windows. Each sold separately. Each with slight differences based on the OS requirements. 

It’s unlikely you’ll need or want to purchase all three versions. Those full versions start at $45 each as of this post. If you do need all three, L & L offers a Windows and macOS bundle for $75 which would save you $15. The iOS version is $19.99. The good news is that you can use the purchased license on as many devices as you own where you are the primary user. This information is included in L & L’s FAQs, and I can verify this. Over the years and many devices, I’ve had my Window’s license applied to a total of seven different Windows-based desktops and laptops, and some of those were overlapping. So far, I’ve used my iOS license on my iPhone and my iPad. (Also, be sure to check for discounts online—you can get a discount by winning a National Novel Writing Month event.)

The differences are minimal. The overall functionality is the same across each platform. The minor discrepancies shouldn’t cause any issues with your files but may be more annoying as you move between different systems. I’m talking about things like menus listing different things in different places.  The files are compatible meaning if I start in Windows, I can move to a Mac and still open my previous project to work. My only complaint about moving from the Windows version to the iOS version is that it requires DropBox to sync files. I typically use another cloud drive, so this creates a few extra steps for me. 

Overall, Scrivener is a robust program that is well worth the price. The customization options allow you to set the program up in a way that fits the way you work and enable you to maximize your writing potential. The organization options help you categorize, prioritize, and edit any type of work you may be doing. While there are some small annoyances, they don’t impact the overall productivity and output of your work.

List of Common Grammar Errors – Spellcheck Isn’t Your Friend

You’ve started writing. You might even have a blog or are posting regularly on social media about your work. Once you get the words on the page, then comes editing. I’m not here to invoke bad memories of standing at the chalkboard trying to diagram a sentence. I would like to over a short list of common grammar errors along with some usage notes.

Most of us depend on the built-in spelling and grammar checks to catch our mistakes, but the items below can be easily overlooked by most programs. Before we dive into the list, here’s something to keep in mind: You don’t have to be 100% grammatically correct all the time, but avoiding common, fundamental errors can make your writing more professional.

Homophones 

For my list of common grammar errors, let’s start with words that sound the same when spoken, but have different meanings or uses depending on the spelling.

  1. They’re-Their-There—This one is guaranteed to make any editor cringe. Say all three out loud. Hear how similar they are? No wonder these three words are so often and easily confused in writing. Here’s the breakdown:
    • They’re: This is the contraction of “they are.” Example: They’re going to sell out of the strawberry pie before we place our order.
    • Their: This indicates ownership. Example: I hope those people enjoy their pie.
    • There: This indicates a place or location. Example: I’ll sit over there closer to the pie.
  2. Your-You’re—Again, try saying the two words out loud. No real difference is there? Here’s what happens when you write:
    • Your: This indicates ownership. Example: Give me your pie since I didn’t get any.
    • You’re: This is the contraction of “you are.” Example: You’re going to buy a whole pie for me.
  3. To-Too-Two—These three words sound the same when spoken. While most people use “two” correctly, the other two words can be a little tricky. Here’s how to use them in writing:
    • To: This is a preposition, and it has a lot of jobs. I can indicate motion, identify a person or thing affected, identify a relationship, or as an infinitive. Example: He is going to the store.
    • Too: This means also or in addition. Example: She is going to the store too.
    • Two: This is a number. Again, the easiest of the three, but still worth mentioning. Example: The two kids are at the store.
  4. Then-Than—While not true homophones, they are frequently misused. I can only imagine these two words get misused due to the similar spelling.
    • Then:  This indicates an event in time or series of actions. Example: She waited ten minutes, then went home.
    • Than: This is used to compare or contrast. Example: She is taller than her brother.

Usage Pitfalls

Next up on my list of common grammar errors are words that may sound right, but aren’t depending on usage.

  1. I-Me: Most of the time, people will use “I” and “me” almost interchangeably. We can usually understand that something like “Me want a cookie” is incorrect, but not understand why something like “Larry took Sara and I to the concert” is incorrect. If the second subject throws you off, try reading the sentence without it: Larry took I to the concert.
    • I: We use “I” when the “I” of your sentence is doing the action or feeling the feeling. Example: Sara and I went to a concert with Larry.
    • Me: We use “me” when the “me” is the object of the action. Example: Larry took Sara and me to the concert.
  2. Who-Whom-Whose-Who’s: Which word you use here also depends on usage. My examples below focus on usage in questions, but these words can also be used in statements. The same basic usage rules apply to statements as well.
    • Who: Usually used as a subject pronoun. Think of it as replacing he or she in sentences where we are asking or talking about the person taking action. Example: Who let the dogs out? (Bonus points if you sang that and barked afterward.)
    • Whom: Usually used as the object pronoun. Think of it as replacing him or her in sentences where we are asking or talking about the person that had the action done to them. Example: Whom did she blame for letting the dogs out?
    • Whose: This indicates ownership. Example: Whose dogs did she let out?
    • Who’s: This is a contraction for “who is” and sometimes “who has.” Example: Who’s going to let the dogs out?

My Pet Peeves

The last group on my list of common grammar errors fall into a particular category called: My Pet Peeves. These are the things that make me cringe when I see them. The worst part is that I’m guilty of making these errors all the time! I always go back over anything I’ve written and look for these three things. 

  1. Who-That: To be fair, there is a lot of debate over usage for these two words. For the most part, “that” can replace “who” in most situations and not get you called out by overzealous grammar students. Still, here are the quick and dirty rules:
    • Who: This generally refers to a person and as mentioned above is the subject pronoun. Example: I didn’t see the girl who wore the coat. Now try reading the sentence with “that” replacing “who.” Example:  I didn’t see the girl that wore the red coat. Still makes sense, and isn’t technically wrong per se.
    • That: This always refers to things or objects. Example: Your coat isn’t like that red coat we saw at the store. (Note here that you can’t swap “that” and “who.”)
    • That: One more quick call out on using “that” before we move on. The word “that” is often a filler word. You don’t need it in most sentences. Do a document search for “that” and read your sentence without “that.” If it makes sense without “that,” then you can delete it.
  2. Less-Fewer: This is a case where we’ve misused something so much it sounds right to most of us. Still, there are distinctions between these two words. The most basic usage rule is:
    • Less: This is used for things that can’t be counted. Example: You can drink less beer.
    • Fewer: This is used for things that you can count. Example: You can buy fewer cans of beer.
  3. Em Dash-Ellipsis: Ok, this one is about the punctuation marks and not words. 
    • Em Dash: This is what you get when you type two dashes and keep typing. Like this: “type—type.” The em dash is used to show an interruption to the thought. There is some debate around formatting when using the em dash. Some say there should be a space before and after; some say the spaces are not needed. Personally, I skip the spaces. Example: Sara—remind me to tell you about her red coat—went to the concert with me.
    • Ellipsis: this is what you get when you type three periods together like this: “type…” Ellipsis is used to show a thought trails off, unfinished. This is also used to indicate that something has been left out in a quote. Example: Sara wore her red coat to…

The list of common grammar errors above can help you catch mistakes your spelling and grammar check may not find for you. Take the time to search your document for these words and punctuation marks to make sure you’ve used them correctly. Eliminating these common errors will make anything you write look and sound more professional.