How to Avoid Vague Writing and Add Detail

Has this ever happened to you? You’re writing an exciting scene between two people, but when one of your characters stares at the other — you realize — you can’t picture that person at all. 

Or have you ever written a character in a room, and it’s just a generic room and none of the details are popping up, so you end up listing off furniture? 

Being vague in your writing is sometimes effective, it lets your reader fill in the gaps. However, there are other times when your lack of specifics can cause confusion or make the reading experience less visceral. If a reader is picking up your book to be transported to another world or to be immersed in a story, you can’t just describe a room as a room or a person with, you know, eyes, brown eyes. 

This is a problem I struggle with as a writer because I have two weaknesses that cause me to falter. 

The first weakness is that, often, I’m unable to picture the complete image in my head. A severe case of this is known as aphantasia. People with aphantasia aren’t able to create a mental picture. 

While you’re imagining your story, you might find your mind blind to certain visuals. This is a paralyzing feeling. A common symptom of aphantasia is not being able to recognize someone’s face, even though you recognize the person’s name. This sometimes happens while you’re writing. You have a character, but you’re unable to imagine a face for this fictional person. In summary, don’t ever ask me to describe someone for a police sketch.

The second weakness that causes my writing to suffer is that I lack the vocabulary to fully describe a person, place, or thing. What colour is to a painter, vocabulary is to a writer. The more words you know the more colours you can add to your story. 

For example, describing a flower as red is not as powerful or specific as describing the flower as vermillion. 

But it goes beyond colour. Describing someone as decrepit is more powerful than just calling someone old. 

Now that I understand my problems and weaknesses, how do I go about fixing these issues and improving? 

Well, when I’m writing the first draft, I don’t even worry about these details. I don’t let the eye color of the characters or the layout of a room or the details of a Chekov gun slow me down from getting the story on paper first. 

After I’ve completed my second or third draft and once I’m confident that the story structure is strong and there is a satisfying ending, that’s when I turn my attention to the details. Once I have the sketch figured out, that’s when I’ll apply the colour. 

But, as I mentioned, this is the part I have trouble with. I have not figured out a fool-proof solution, however, I have found a few techniques to help me battle through my lack of mental images and limited vocabulary. 

The first thing I do is what many artists do — I find references. 

If I’m writing a character, I pretend I’m a casting agent and find photographs of people, usually actors, models, or celebrities of some sort. If I need to describe the way the character looks, I’ll reference these photos to make sure that the image of this character is consistent the whole way through. 

If I’m creating a setting, I’d go to a location similar to the one in my story to get a sense of how it feels. If I can’t travel to such a location, because well, I write dystopian fantasy, I’d find pictures on Google to show me what that place looks like. It won’t be the full experience, but once I can see it in my mind, my imagination can take over from there.

I also find concept artists that are creating illustrations that match the mood, tone, and imagery I want to create with my words. I will then write descriptions about that piece. This method allows me to construct the details separately and then transfer them to the project I’m working on. 

Photo by Vikas Pawar on Unsplash

As for increasing your vocabulary, there’s no quick solution. Learning a new word is like turning on a dimmer switch, not flicking on a light. You need to encounter a word over and over again until it sticks in your head. The best way to increase your exposure is to write down any new words that you are unfamiliar with, read the definition, and begin incorporating them into your own writing. Don’t wait to see it out in the world again. If it’s a unique word it could take months and years before you encounter it again. Use it often so you become more and more familiar. 

Reading is the best way to find new words. But it is your job to admit that you don’t know them. Don’t just scan past them. Stop and mark them down. I like reading on a Kindle because I don’t even need to pull out the dictionary. All I need to do is hover over a word and I get a definition of it. Then the word is added to a dictionary for me to reference. 

As a challenge, for each writing session, incorporate one unfamiliar word, a word that you didn’t know before you started. It’ll go a long way to growing your vocabulary. But learning new words is not something you should rush, for the risk of using them incorrectly. 

A vague description of a character, an item, or a setting makes for a dull reading experience. It’s your job as a writer to immerse your readers in a story. When the moment calls for it, make sure you can give them the details they need to visualize the scene clearly in their heads. 

We all have strengths and weaknesses as creatives, and not being able to fully visualize a whole world in your head is something most of us normal people struggle with, not only people with aphantasia. So don’t be so hard on yourself. Identify your weaknesses and slowly strengthen them. 

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6 Tips and Examples For Writing Long Sentences Worth Reading

Long sentences may be confusing. Too many ideas, details, and modifiers can make it difficult for readers to follow your story. However, long sentences are necessary if you want your writing to have a desirable rhythm. You cannot fill your work with only short punchy sentences. If you’re going to be a well-balanced writer, you must learn how to master long sentences. 

Yes, there is a common criticism that nobody wants to read long sentences, but cutting things down is not always better. Great writing consists of sentences of all lengths. Today, I’ll share six pieces of advice and examples of how long sentences can be applied to your writing.  

1. Place the subject and verb of the main clause early in the sentence.

He looked at me and held out his hand, sending black ribbons of darkness climbing through the sphere, twisting and turning. I grew the light wider and brighter, feeling the pleasure of the power move through me, letting it play through my fingertips as he sent inky tendrils of darkness shooting through the light, making them dance. – Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo (p 217)

Want to write better? Check out this video here: How to Write Clearly with Right Branching Sentences.

2. When describing something long and slow, use a long sentence. 

It rained all night. I had a horrible, sleepless time of it. It was noisy. On the rain catcher the rain made a drumming sound, and around me, coming from the darkness beyond, it made a hissing sound, as if I were at the centre of a great nest of angry snakes. 

Shifts in the wind changed the directions of the rain so that parts of me that were beginning to feel warm were soaked anew. I shifted the rain catcher, only to be unpleasantly surprised a few minutes later when the wind changed once more. 

I tried to keep a small part of me dry and warm, around my chest, where I had placed the survival manual, but the wetness spread with perverse determination. I spent the whole night shivering with cold. – Life of Pi by Yann Martel (p173)

Photo by Super Snapper on Unsplash

3. Write the long sentence in chronological order. 

It’s in the newspaper today how somebody broke into offices between the tenth and fifteenth floors of the Hein Tower, and climbed out the office windows, and painted the south side of the building with a grinning five-story mask, and set fires so the window at the center of each huge eye blazed huge and alive and inescapable over the city at dawn. – Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (p 118)

How did Fight Club go from book to movie? Check out this article here: The Adaptation of Fight Club

4. Accompany long sentences with medium and short ones.

My proximity to the Careers’ camp sharpens my senses, and the closer I get to them, the more guarded I am, pausing frequently to listen for unnatural sounds, an arrow already fitted into the string of my bow. I don’t see any other tributes, but I do notice some of the things Rue has mentioned. Patches of the sweet berries. A bush with leaves that healed my stings. Clusters of tracker jacker nest in the vicinity of the tree I was trapped in. And here and there, the black-and-white flash of a mockingjay wing in the branches high over my head. – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (p 214)

5. A long sentence can be used for listing products, names, and images. 

Chani stood over him now, looking down on the soft beard of youth that framed his face, tracing with her eyes the high browline, the strong nose, the shuttered eyes — the features so peaceful in this rigid repose. – Dune by Frank Herbert (p 716)

6. Editing matters more with long sentences. Make every word count. 

One of the major difficulties Trillian experienced in her relationship with Zaphod was learning to distinguish between him pretending to be stupid just to get people off their guard, pretending to be stupid because he couldn’t be bothered to think and wanted someone else to do it for him, pretending to be outrageously stupid to hide the fact that he actually didn’t understand what was going on, and really being genuinely stupid. – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (p85)

Which long-sentence tip will you practice writing first? Let me know in the comments below. 

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Why Read Speculative Fiction

The term speculative fiction (aka spec fiction) covers many genres, including fantasy, science fiction, alternate history, and horror. In a world that already feels so surreal — where we can’t distinguish truths from lies — we must ask, why read spec fiction? 

Fantasy and science fiction are two of my favorite genres. From ancient mythology that I grew up on as a kid like the Chinese epic Journey to the West (Amazon) to the modern-day high fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire (Amazon) to space operas such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Amazon). When seeking out a story, I usually gravitate to something that takes me to a place far away from the realms of reality. 

Yes, I love it for the escapism, but I also pick up spec fiction for the same reason I’d read a sad drama, I want to have a cathartic experience. There’s nothing like a post-apocalyptic or dystopian story to put things in perspective. These stories make me feel the numbing dread of existence and remind me that this little life I have is fragile, and therefore, should be handled as such. 

Speculative fiction is fake, but only in the way that looking in a convex mirror is fake — it distorts the image back at us. That’s not what we actually look like, but in the wide-angle reflection, we see more than our naked eyes could. We see the consequences of our actions and it broadens our view in a way that realism or biographies cannot. 

The following are four reasons why I think you should read spec fiction. 

An Intro to History

One way to learn about history is by reading textbooks. You can learn all about Ancient Rome or the Great Wars this way. You can learn about the dates and times, and other trivial details. Odds are, if you were introduced to a topic via a textbook, the likelihood of you getting super interested in it is low. After all, how many people claim that it was in school that they lost their passion for reading? 

Alternate history and fantasy can be a gateway to diving deeper into real-world events. 

The Leviathan Trilogy (Amazon) by Scott Westerfeld made me want to learn more about World War 1 through the lens of steampunk and biopunk. By creating a fictional depiction of the Allied forces versus the Central Power, where war machines battle genetically modified beasts on the European battlefield, I grow more curious about the actual events. 

Watchmen (Amazon) got me interested in the politics of Richard Nixon, A Song of Ice and Fire introduced me to the War of the Roses, and Slaughterhouse-Five taught me about the bombing of Dresden. Spec fiction sparks your curiosity as a well-marketed history lesson that hooks you and asks, “if you’re interested in this, guess what craziness really happened.” 

Prepare Us For The Future

Genres such as science fiction and dystopian give writers license to share their worldview in the most empathetic way they can, through the perspective of a protagonist. This allows us to see their version of the future, whether it be startling, hopeful, or pessimistic. In doing so, we’re forced to question our own values: how will we defend them and how will we react when our familiar world is put to the test. 

The Road (Amazon) by Cormac MacCarthy asks, “How will we survive at the end of it all?” The Stand (Amazon) by Steven King asks me which side I’d choose when I’m forced to pick. 1984 (Amazon) by George Orwell reminds me that we can be controlled by fear. A Brave New World (Amazon) by Aldous Huxley reminds me that we can be controlled by pleasure. 

Every modern-day question we have about our values could be put to the test when we read spec fiction. No, these books don’t contain the answers we need to fix our current realities, but they are apt warnings, a little fire drill within ourselves that prepares answers for: What will you do when the time comes? What will you do when you need to act? 

Confront Our Fears

From censorship to monsters to the afterlife, spec fiction creates an arena in our imagination where we can confront our fears like a gladiator against a spaceship of aliens. Like the boggart from Harry Potter in our brain, we conjure up what terrifies us, so that we and the protagonist can face them in a world where we won’t get hurt. Win or lose, when we read spec fiction, we do it bravely. And with that bravery, we can bring it to the real world where we have to face overcomeable fears such as taxes, stubborn bosses, and missile launches from North Korea. 

Whether you’re reading about the end of the world or a battle against a giant spider, spec fiction brings you to the shadow realms, so you can gain the confidence to stand strong in the face of real challenges. 

Exercise For The Mind

While a mystery novel can be a puzzle, spec fiction can also test the mind by forcing us to paint an image in our head that we reference from reality. This is especially true for spec fiction that has yet to be adapted to film or television. 

Reading a spec fiction book where you haven’t seen any concept art, and the only visual you have is the cover, you as the reader become as much the creator as the author.

As you read, your mind expands to a scale that cannot fit within any confines of the real world. You dive into the heads of characters and out into a fantastical land with mountains, rivers, and oceans, and then further out to galaxies far far away. 

You gain the empathetic skills to communicate better and you increase your curiosity to explore deeper and further in any direction. The more you read, the stronger your mind gets, and like going to the gym, you get what you put in. 

By reading speculative fiction, we learn about the environment, human nature, politics, technology, and the supernatural all through the protective filter of fiction. Sure, on the surface it might just seem like wizards, aliens, and battleships, but when you turn the pages, you realize that there is so much more. 

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3 Reasons to Be a Generalist

If you want to succeed, you have to be a specialist. That’s a common belief, isn’t it? 

After all, if you’re calling someone to fix your toilet, you’d want a professional plumber. You don’t want a plumber/novelist. You want to make sure this guy knows what he’s doing and not simply using your bathroom to research his next urban fantasy

Certain roles demand specialization like surgeons, pilots, and plumbers. However, most people can benefit from having a breadth of knowledge, acquiring more skills, gaining more experiences, embracing detours, and experimenting with their craft. 

We used to believe that in order to succeed, you must get ahead and stay ahead. Commit and never waver. But I have three reasons why you should avoid the traditional trap and expand your range so that you can be a high-functioning generalist.

1. Skill Stacking: 80% Is Already Really Good

If you were an ambitious Asian kid like I was, at some point in your life, someone would’ve pressured you to be the best. Number 1. The gold medalist. A+ student. The undisputed champion. 

The likelihood of me or anyone reaching that pinnacle is very slim. There are over 7 billion people in the world, so it’s going to be hard to reach the top and have a perfect 100%. However, we don’t need to be the best. We only need to be proficient. We can be 80% and still be better than the majority of people. Being 80% means that you’re capable of accomplishing your task and you are completing it way above average. To rise beyond 80%, other factors need to come into play such as genetics. That’s why even under the best conditions, specialization can only get you so far. 

I love the concept of skill stacking, which is the idea of combining all your skills together so that even if you’re not a 100% performer in any of them, collectively they still give you an advantage over a majority of the world. 

Let’s say you are 80% good at writing, 80% good at marketing, and 80% good at photography. You become so much more effective in starting your business, a process that requires many skills, than someone who is 100% good at writing and 0% good at the other skills. 

For more on skill stacking, check out How to Be Better at Almost Everything by Pat Flynn (Amazon)

2. Breadth of Knowledge: You Can Solve Bigger Problems

When we’re focused on our own work, in our own team, in our own department, we learn to solve one problem and one problem well. It’s when that problem changes that traditional methods and tools become ineffective. Failing to be agile results in wasted efforts. These siloed operations are flaws in the system, preventing innovations from taking place.

If you only consume information from a narrow field, you shrink your world. When you’re exposed to fewer experiences and ideas, you’re less likely to make new connections. These connections are potential solutions to new problems and creative ways to use old tools. 

It’s true that learning a breadth of knowledge can be inefficient. This is often the case in trades and science, where specialization is expected. However, by gaining a range of skills and broad knowledge, we can solve bigger problems and be nimble. In the modern world, a sudden disruption can make your specialized skill obsolete and leave you completely lost. It’s good to go deep into a subject, but be sure to go wide as well, just in case.  

To learn more about how being a generalist can help solve bigger problems, check out Range by David Epstein (Amazon)

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

3. Find Your Unique Style

Creativity is all about making connections. And connections come from experiences. The more people, environments, genres, and artforms you expose yourself to the more connections you’ll make. 

There’s too much out there these days and replicating a classic will only get you so far. However, it’s a good place to start. In order to stand out, you need to bring something new to the table. The best way to do that is to understand what has worked in the past and mix it up in a novel way. As you replicate these established styles, you’ll discover your own. 

I love the idea of “swimming upstream” and discovering a family tree of your influences. Try this exercise: Find one thinker — a creator, writer, artist, role model — you admire and whose works you want to emulate. Study that person. Become a specialist and go deep. Then find three people that that thinker admires and follow them as well. Learn everything you can. Go deeper still. Once you’re done with that tree, begin again with another thinker, and go through that same process of swimming upstream. See how each thinker is a culmination of many others. See how one influences another. 

I love the saying: if you steal from one artist you’re plagiarising, but if you steal from many, you’re developing your own style. 

For more on developing your own style and stealing like an artist, check out Steal Like An Artist by Austen Kleon (Amazon)

More than ever, being a generalist can be a key to your success. Organizations are depending on team members that can communicate between departments. Generalists are counted on to call out discrepancies and make connections that might not be visible to specialists who are too deep into their field to notice. 

So forget about the old misconceptions, traditions, and pressures of picking a lane and staying rigidly within it. It’s time to learn, it’s time to explore, and it’s time to do more. 

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Writing the Sequel While Editing the First Book 

My writing project is big. Too big. And it’s all my fault. Whatever writing advice told me to start small: start with short stories, master the fundamentals, and then move to bigger projects, I didn’t listen. 

In one of my previous updates, I mentioned that I’m working on a novel. Guess what, it’s going to be more than a one-off. It’s at least two books, but probably going to be three. A trilogy. Maybe more. I’ve committed to a long game. I wanted a project that could pull me out of the Covid world and drop me on the other side. And I found it. Regardless of what this trilogy becomes, it’s going to be a significant part of my life. For that I’m lucky. 

But what I want to talk about today is my awkward process. I’m currently editing the fourth draft of book one, while I’m writing the first draft of book two. It’s awkward because I feel like I’m looking into the future to write and I’m traveling back in time to edit. Unconventional as it may be, I do find it productive. At this very moment, where the world is in chaos and motivation is hard to come by, it’s easier to maintain productivity if I’m active in two separate phases: writing and editing. 

When I’m writing, I’m using a different creative muscle from editing. I’m a pantser or a discovery writer, so I don’t do many outlines. My first draft is the outline and I just let it flow. 

However, editing is a slog. I don’t take a lot of pleasure in editing. It’s the act of cleaning up the mess that the pantser-writer-me made, and in this project, it’s a big mess. In order to ensure I fully develop the world, understand my characters, and build out the story arc, I’m writing beyond my first book to gain clarity on what I should focus on while editing it. 

Writing sequel editing first book

I also want to keep the structure of my books the same and there was a fortuitous period of the process where I was writing the first and second acts of the sequel while editing the first and second acts of book one. This allowed me to see critical turning points in the stories from both books at the same time and try to spot and create parallels. 

Ideally, I’d like this series to resemble each other in form even though the story changes as it goes. I want to be consistent where I can while letting my characters roam free and explore. This process also allowed me to go back and check on all the motivations and scenarios in the first book and make sure they support what the character will do in the second. I can even sneak some foreshadows or other storytelling devices in and hint at the events to come. 

Now, I don’t recommend this as writing advice, it really does depend on your goals. For me, this writing while editing is most helpful for my editing process. I am still trying to strengthen the story in the first book and by writing beyond, I gain a better understanding of the world and characters. I can also discover whether or not the characters will achieve their goals so that I can set the tone properly. For example, if my character will face greater hardship in the second book, maybe I can lighten up in the first. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I want the lessons in the first to come into play in the second. These are all still options. 

By starting my sequel before I finalize my first, I give myself room to experiment. Since I’m not an established author who has an impending deadline, this is a luxury. By doing this, with a bit of editing in the first book, I can ensure I won’t write myself into a trap I can’t escape from. Little by little, I’ll eventually bring my whole story to a close. 

I will probably use this same process to complete the whole trilogy. It sickens me to think how much more I have to do, but getting started on the second book makes me feel like I’m happily invested. It proves to me that I enjoy writing this story. It makes me hopeful that I can reach the end if I just keep moving forward. At the very least I’d have it all written. Once it’s all written, then who knows… but that will be a while from now. After all, this is a big project and I’m in it for the long term. 

There you have it. If you’re stuck editing your first book, try writing a sequel. Even if you don’t plan on publishing a sequel, it can help you flush out your story more. And hey, who knows, maybe you’ll discover a better ending. Maybe you’ll discover that the sequel is actually the story that matters. 

For more writing and editing inspiration and stories, please sign up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, they’ll only include my proudest works.

For more videos about writing and the creative process, please check out my YouTube channel here!

Writing Through the Backfill: The Swimming Pool Theory

At some point in your story, your readers will require backfill, also known as expository details. You’ll need to describe the characters, explain the history of a location, or establish a relationship. But how do you include this information without slowing the plot so much that your readers become disinterested? 

First, I ask, “Is this part even necessary?” If the answer is yes, and the rest of your story won’t make sense without it, don’t fear, there is a way to include this information while still engaging the reader. 

Here’s how you can approach it with The Swimming Pool Theory:

Consider your story like a kick off the sidewall in a swimming pool, pushing off to the deep end, propelling your narrative forward. If you want your readers to float past the backfill of your story, loaded with descriptions and historical context, you need to first create momentum. 

This push should come as an intriguing moment in the story: a moment of intensity, a moment where a problem occurs, a defining turning point, or a moment where something surprising was said. These moments pose new questions that must be answered and powered by curiosity, the readers will continue reading, desperate to discover.

This allows you to maintain the tension while including backfill, essential but less exciting information. These are information that readers need but they might not want to continue reading if it was in the first paragraph. These information are not hooks, but rather promises. You are now making a promise that if they swim through all this exposition, there will be a payoff. They will learn the answer. 

Writing is all about choosing what details to share and when to share them. By recognizing how your story ebbs and flows, you can weave a tale that is well-paced and enjoyable the whole way through, also known as a page-turner

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Instead of giving out information as it happens, switch it around. Switch paragraphs, scenes, and even chapters around. If you’re ever in an editing rut, and you’re not sure what to look for, look at what’s kicking your story off the wall in the swimming pool. Feel for how far that momentum will take the readers and decide when you need another intriguing scene to kick forward. And if you don’t have enough of these key moments pushing your readers along, that means you’ll have to write it. 

Backfill is necessary for a story, especially if you’re world-building. However, if all you give them are details, they are going to lose interest. So think of your story as being in a pool, how will you push off to the deep end? 

For more writing and editing inspiration and stories, please sign up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, they’ll only include my proudest works.

For more videos about writing and the creative process, please check out my YouTube channel here!

4 Punctuation Principles You Must Master

The comma is the most complicated punctuation mark in the English language. Not only does it have many uses, but it also has many misuses. In The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and EB White (Amazon), four punctuation principles were deemed most important and that “they should be so thoroughly mastered that their application becomes second nature.” 

Now,  if you’re ready, grab a pen and notebook, strap yourself in because we are going to quickly go through these 4 important punctuation rules:  

1.  Enclose parenthetical expressions with commas 

Take this example:

The dog that ran away came back with a cat. 

The fact that the dog ran away is extra information. But this information is also essential to the sentence.

It’s this essentialness, or restrictiveness, that determines the role commas play.

A parenthetical expression is a word or phrase that adds to the sentence to give extra information. 

If the information is essential such as in: 

The dog that ran away came back with a cat. 

You may omit the commas. 

However, you can add commas to separate, if the information is nonessential, such as in: 

The dog, hungry for treats, came back with a cat. 

So remember it this way, if the information is essential you may omit the commas, but if the information can be removed without influencing the meaning of the sentence then you should add the commas. 

Another way to put it is to recognize nonrestrictive terms and clauses, as they will often require commas. In the middle of a sentence these nonrestrictive clauses are often preceded by “Which”, “When”, and “Where”: Such as:

The car, which was illegally parked, got towed. 

Nonrestrictive clauses may also appear at the beginning of a sentence:

Parking the car illegally, the man hurried into the store. 

To summarize:

You won’t need commas for a sentence like: The boy is a criminal.  

But you will need one for: My son, Billy, stole my car. 

How are we doing? A little confusing, eh? You’re not alone. This rule for me is one of the most challenging in the entire language because sometimes the importance of the information can feel subjective. 

But don’t feel bogged down by all the commas, Strunk and White give you permission to omit them if the interruption is short. 

If you are to remove the commas, however, don’t remove one but not the other. 

If you are to remove the commas, however don’t remove one but not the other. 

Personally, I always use commas to break up “however”, as well as dates: Saturday, June 4, 2022

Photo by Yannick Pulver on Unsplash

2. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause. 

A conjunction is a word that connects two separate elements or sentences. Common examples include FANBOYS:

  • For
  • And
  • Nor
  • But
  • Or
  • Yet
  • So

And also:

  • As (used in relation to Because)
  • While (used in relation to events happening at the same time) 

When a conjunction comes before an independent clause (which can serve as a single sentence in itself), a comma is required in front of it. 

The traffic was bad, but the robbers were going to escape no matter what. 

Or

The police chased on foot, for the roads were gridlocked. 

However, with a dependent clause, it gets a little tricky. 

According to Strunk and White: If the clauses in the sentence share the same subject, the subject is only expressed once, and the conjunction is “but” then adding a comma will be useful. 

The robbers found a hiding spot, but forgot to take the money. 

However, if the conjunction is “and” then omitting the comma will be okay as the two interlinking thoughts are closely related. 

The police found the money in the car and decided to keep it for themselves. 

3. Do not join independent clauses with a comma. 

If you have two complete and separate thoughts with their own subject and verb, such as:

WRONG: The monster emerged from the swamp, the terrified campers climbed up the tree. 

Do Not place a comma between them. 

To correct it, you have a few options: 

The first option is breaking it into two sentences and using a period — or an exclamation mark — while capitalizing the first letter of the following sentence: 

The monster emerged from the swap. The terrified campers climbed up the tree.

The monster emerged from the swap! The terrified campers climbed up the tree. 

Alternatively, you can combine the sentences by using a semi-colon or adding a comma and conjunction. 

The monster emerged from the swap; the terrified campers climbed up the tree.

The monster emerged from the swap, so the terrified campers climbed up the tree. 

As you can tell, changing the punctuation mark changes the relationship between the two statements. The better you understand this principle, the better control you’ll have of your writing style. Personally, I’m a comma/conjunction type of guy, but let me know which one you prefer in the comment below. 

4. Do not break sentences in two. 

Simply put, commas cannot replace periods and periods cannot replace commas. A period’s primary function is to separate complete sentences, so when you use it instead of commas, you’ll likely end up with sentence fragments. For example: 

He was a wealthy man. Having earned all his money through buying and trading crypto. 

It should be: 

He was a wealthy man, having earned all his money through buying and trading crypto. 

A complete sentence has a subject and verb, and while the first part can stand as an independent clause, the second half of that sentence is missing the subject. 

An exception to this principle, which I’d recommend using sparingly, is to break the sentence when you want to emphasize a specific word. Such as: 

He punched the wall. Hard. 

There you have it! Those are four of the most important punctuation principles according to Strunk and White. Once you get a hang of them, you will be well on your way to being a proficient writer and editor with another tool in your tool belt. 

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How to Be Consistent When Writing: Focus on the Valleys Not the Peaks

Photo by Sangay Lama on Unsplash

One way to stay consistent is to keep track of what you’re doing. By keeping track you can actually see — over the course of many months and years — how consistent you’ve actually been. Did you take a break during the holidays? Did you make big progress during the summer? These are things you can see when you start tracking your writing and other creative projects. 

A tracker can be anything you want, it can be a notebook, it could be a spreadsheet, but I like a simple calendar. Preferably Google Calendar. 

When you start tracking your work, whether you’re writing a novel, building a YouTube channel, or growing a business, you’ll begin to see ups and downs. Sometimes you’re doing great: you increase your word count or you hit a record high days in a row of working on a project. Other times you see lows: days where you didn’t even open your notebook or edit a video. It’s that week that you got sick and you didn’t publish or that month when you were on vacation. 

It is in these lows — or as I like to call them, valleys — that you lose your momentum. These valleys can expand into canyons if you don’t handle them properly. These valleys can be so demoralizing, especially when you are looking up and seeing how high your peaks were and you question whether you can ever get back to that level. 

Tracking your work keeps you honest and it can be a compassionate motivator if you know how to use it. The secret is in how we define “progress”. 

Sure there will be days where you don’t make a lot of progress in your writing, but you took some photographs that help to inspire your next chapter. It’s easy to dismiss that activity and call it something else besides work and, therefore, you don’t track it. But maybe you can track it. Mark it down as “Doing research for the novel”, categorize it differently from “word counts” or “publishing”, give it a different color in the tracker if you must, but track it.

You get to decide what you want to track as creative work. It could be reading, watching a movie, or listening to a new album to get inspiration. All this could be considered research. All this could be a way to refresh your creativity because creativity can come in those moments where you aren’t at the computer writing or editing. 

As you begin to include these other activities in your tracker, you’ll see that your valleys aren’t a dramatic drop-off. Your valleys aren’t pits and they contain moments where you were making progress, albeit you weren’t increasing your word count, polishing your piece, or hitting publish. 

Focusing on raising your valleys to me has been super effective in staying consistent. And it works for all things. No project or business can maintain a straight hockey stick growth forever. Eventually, you’ll have to battle with peaks and valleys. Peaks are great! Everything is wonderful when you are at the peak. 

In fact, it feels so good, we end up putting too much attention on it. Our highest records, our biggest profit, or recorded breaking post. The peak is great, but it doesn’t need your immediate attention. Focus on the valleys. It is the valleys that will make all the difference in terms of your longevity and growth. Focus on increasing your valleys by tracking what you did during those days that impacted your project indirectly. The higher your valleys become, the higher your baseline will be over time. 

Rather than trying to reach a higher peak by putting in all-nighters for a week and then burning out. Focus on doing a little bit every day, adding more as you go, and pulling back if you need rest. Maintaining your valley will keep you consistent. The beautiful thing about all of this is that you get to decide how to track your growth. Not all tasks are equal, but all tasks can be tracked. When they are, you won’t feel like you’ve wasted your time. You’ll see progress, even if it is a long slog through the valley. 

This is a mindset that has worked for me, I hope it works for you. Let me know if you have another method of staying consistent in the comments below. 

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How Tim Ferriss Ask For Writing Feedback

Tim Ferriss, the author and podcaster, is all about optimizing his performance in every way. His books The 4 Hour Chef (Amazon) and Tools of Titans (Amazon) have helped me tremendously and when he spoke about his process in acquiring feedback, I knew his approach was tried and true. 

In episode 538 of the Tim Ferriss Show, in a casual conversation with author Chris Hutchins, Tim explained how he gathered effective feedback, especially at the early stages of a project. 

If you’ve ever asked a friend to read your work and give feedback, you know how stressful, time-consuming, and unproductive that process can be. This is especially true if all you’ve given them is the manuscript and vague instructions like “give me feedback” or “let me know what you think.” Such an experience could cause unnecessary tension between friends. 

To avoid that scenario, allow me to share with you Tim’s method for getting clear, succinct, and useful feedback for his writing and interviews. 

Break Chapters Into “Self Sufficient” Pieces That Stand Alone

When writing, Tim makes sure that each of his chapters can stand on its own, as a “kind of modular” like a “feature magazine article.” 

If you’re writing non-fiction, each of your chapters can be treated like a blog post. If you’re writing fiction, each of your chapters could have a story arc and could be published as a short story. 

With each chapter as an individual piece, Tim’s friends and editors only need to read one chapter, instead of a whole book, to have the context necessary to give useful feedback. 

Share the Single Chapter with 3-4 Writer or Lawyer Friends 

When picking who he would share his work with, Tim usually chooses friends who are writers or lawyers or those who have attended law school. He picks these people because they have the proper training in reviewing text and spotting ambiguity. These professionals also have a keen eye for superfluous details that should be cut. 

While you might not have any writer or lawyer friends, who you choose to share your work with still matters. If your friend is not an avid reader or has no interest in your topic or genre, they can’t really help you. Understanding your network and the strengths and weaknesses of the individual is essential because you don’t want to waste time and get frustrated when the person sharing feedback isn’t qualified. In a scenario like that, it might be better to have no feedback at all. 

Sharp, observant, and capable of proofreading are qualities you look for in beta readers — and writers and lawyers tend to have those traits

However, getting a diverse sample of feedback is also important. That is why Tim doesn’t only share it with one person but with four. 

Love It Or Hate It, It Can’t Be Confusing

Once Tim has a team of reviewers, he approaches them with one or two asks. For the first, Tim requests:

“Please read this. And if anything is confusing, please note that. You can love it. You can hate it. I’m fine with either of those, but if it’s confusing, it’s no good for anyone. So if anything’s confusing, please note. If your mind starts to wander, please note where that is.” 

Whether with audio or text, the goal of the piece is to inform and captivate. If the reader or listener gets bored, distracted, or confused by a certain part, it’s important for Tim to know where that is so he could modify or remove it.

The point is not to get a rave review. The personal taste of the reader doesn’t matter at this point. The goal is to figure out whether it’s useful to anyone, and if it’s unclear or dull, it’s useless. 

Ask: Which 20% Should I Cut? 

His second and preferred request is to ask: “If I had to cut 20 percent, which 20 percent would I cut?” 

Knowing what’s the core and what’s excess is important. This gives you an idea of where you should focus your attention when you’re editing. How concise and succinct can you make it? This forces you to take a closer look at the remaining 80% and examine the substance of your piece. 

The thing is, when you ask four people, not all four will have the same opinion. So when a situation like that occurs, Tim has a firm rule. 

If 1 Out Of 4 Love It, Keep It

If 3 people tell Tim to cut out a section, while 1 person says that they love that section, he will keep it. He does this because something that resonated so strongly with one person is a good enough reason to keep it. If he cut it, it might’ve saved some room, but it would have potentially failed to impact 1 out of every 4 people, which is a big percentage. 

To cut a part out for the sake of the majority is not how Tim approaches his editing.

You cannot serve everyone, but when you know you can serve someone, serve them!

Don’t Ask For Feedback If You Don’t Plan On Taking It

Lastly, perhaps what I found to be the most important piece of advice is to not ask for feedback if you don’t plan on using it in some way. If you know you’re not willing to make changes, then why bother taking up someone else’s time? 

When Tim received his writer or lawyer friend’s feedback, and the suggestions are valid, he would apply it to his work and improve it. 

If you’ve picked the right beta readers, respect their opinions, and trust that they have your best interest, why wouldn’t you keep an open mind? When receiving feedback we need to lose the ego, otherwise, it might be better not to ask for their thoughts at all. 

When asking people for feedback, we’re requesting their time and energy. They’re doing us a favor and as such, we should be grateful. That is why I think Tim Ferriss’s process is solid because first, he makes the request digestible. Then he chooses those that are qualified for the job and ensures what he needs is clear. Finally, he prepares for how the feedback will be used so he doesn’t lose sight of the bigger picture, which is to provide captivating and valuable content to the largest group of people possible. 

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Waking Up Earlier to Write if You’re Not a Morning Person

If you’re working full-time like I am, it’s hard to find time to write. At the end of the day, you’re tired. You’ve depleted your creative energy. But not only that, by waiting until you’ve finished everything else, you’ve been carrying around this anxiety all day long. I hate that. And you probably do as well. It can make you resent all the other responsibilities you have. 

So, to make sure I can get some words down with guilt-free energy, I wake up an hour early each day to write. 

Before we get into the details of my experience, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Elliot and I’m a writer. I’m currently working on a novel and if you want to hear how that’s going, check out this video here or in the description, and if you are interested in following along on my journey, please subscribe. 

Now back to the current video. Here’s what I can tell you about my experience waking up an hour early to write. 

Get up 60 min, 90 min, or 110 min earlier

When I say I wake up an hour earlier, I don’t mean the break of dawn. I use to get up at 8 am, now I get up at 7 am. It’s not that impressive when I say it like that. But again, it doesn’t have to be a big deal. 

However, if you’re finding it hard to get up 60 minutes earlier, try getting up 90 or 110 minutes earlier. You might actually feel more refreshed. The reason is that a sleep cycle is between 90 to 110 min long, so by reducing your sleep, you may actually wake up at the end of a cycle instead of in the middle. 

When I write in the morning, I write longhand

For my job, I’m going to be spending my whole day in front of the computer. In order to reduce my screen time, especially first thing in the morning, I choose to write longhand. 

I find that writing physically in a notebook gives me a stronger connection with the words. Also, when I’m at the computer, it’s too easy to hit the delete key. I’d be damned that if I woke up early and did not get my words down. By writing it on paper, and not being able to erase it, I know that at the very least, I’ve made a mark on the day. 

Writing in the morning
Photo by Ioana Tabarcea on Unsplash

We are adaptable 

When I talk about waking up earlier, I know what many of you are thinking: “but I’m not a morning person.” Fair. I’m not a morning person either, but I used to work the opening shift at a Starbucks that opened at 5 am, which meant that I needed to be up by 3:30 am and out the door by 4am. It was brutal, but I adapted. I got to work on time every shift. 

I’m not superhuman, I just needed the money. It was my job. That job gave me evidence that I could wake up earlier if I had to. 

You’ve woken up early before, you can do it again. The more you do it, the more you’ll adapt to it. I will never be a morning person, but I could certainly suck it up if it means taking advantage of an optimal time to write. I treat it like a job. 

Writing is not the first thing I do when I get up

When I say I wake up early to write, you might think that I get up and go straight to writing. I don’t. I wake up and do my morning routines first, the ones I would do if I was heading directly to work after. I’d wake up, get clean, walk and feed my dog, say hi to my wife, make a cup of coffee, and then, at last, I sit down to write. 

My point here is to find your own routine. Waking up early doesn’t mean you need to spend every extra moment you get to write, it just means you get a headstart on the day, a little bonus time before you’re bombarded with other assignments. 

One morning won’t make a big difference

If you wake up early for one day and expect to see significant results, you’ll be disappointed. You won’t get a lot in one hour. But if you build upon this habit, the hours add up. 

There are days where you’ll wake up, spend the hour writing crap, and be exactly where you were before. Don’t be discouraged. Stick with the process

Yes, you could have slept in and achieved the same amount. However, if you wake up one hour earlier every day, then over the course of weeks and months, you’ll see that your good days will greatly increase. From there, you’ll gain momentum. 

These little headstarts add up. You might not see results after one day, but over the course of a year, you’ll notice. 

Many writers talk about a morning routine. There is a reason why so many prefer it. By getting writing checked off the list immediately, we don’t carry that anxiety along with us all day. We don’t expend all our energy on lower-priority tasks. 

As writers, we need to write and be creative so that the weight can be lifted. Some people exercise first thing in the morning to release the tension and feel normal. Some need to write. It’s not so much about productivity. Productivity is great, but it’s more about doing something for yourself as early as possible. You deserve days where you’ve written, so make sure it happens. 

For more videos about writing and the creative process, please check out my YouTube channel here!

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