What Does Trying Too Hard Mean?

Heather and Patrick were having coffee together and a conversation about a novel came up. American Gods by Neil Gaiman. “I love that book,” said Patrick, to which Heather responded with a disgusted grunt. “I didn’t like it.” 

Patrick was a little shocked because they often enjoyed the same type of entertainment. “Why?” he asked. 

Heather thought about it for a moment, recalling some aspects of the story and said, “Hmm… I felt that Gaiman was just trying too hard.” 

Patrick was not satisfied with that answer, “Shouldn’t a writer always try hard?” 

“Oh,” said Heather, with no desire to continue the conversation. “I just didn’t like it…” 

Patrick, not wanting to spoil their afternoon together decided to drop it. But the thought lingered in his mind. “Trying too hard.” Shouldn’t that be a good thing?” 

While Heather failed to articulate elements of the story that she disliked, “trying too hard” is a common expression to describe a piece of writing — or a creative work of any kind — that didn’t register with the audience. This is especially noticeable when the work is something as big and bold as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. 

Nobody would deny that it was a piece of ambitious work. It’s a story about life and death, mythology and beliefs, new America, and sacred lands. It has a massive cast of characters and a climax as epic as any other notable fantasy. But surely that cannot be a bad thing. Can it? 

A writer gives off the impression of trying too hard when the effort put into the work is not only visible but excessive. Although this can all be a matter of personal taste, Heather must have found the references to mythology and religion, the metaphor of media and technology as deities, and the usage of real-world geography and imagined realms too much. Each one of these unique elements added another flavour to the story that she simply wasn’t familiar with. It felt too experimental and it failed to capture her imagination.

When a reader finds that a writer is trying too hard to impress her, it can be off-putting. Unnecessarily large words, similes that miss the mark, flowery language with no purpose, humour that lacks the wit, and cliffhangers at any opportunity given are all elements that leave the reader feeling like the writer was trying too hard. 

Of course, Patrick didn’t think Neil Gaiman was trying too hard. He found American Gods to be an entertaining and thought-provoking novel. Over 450 pages of thrilling action and adventure. He found the story to be a fresh take on a familiar genre and proved to him that Gaiman was a writer that continually pushed the limits of his own creative and literary capabilities. 

One could argue that Gaiman wouldn’t have written something that impacted Patrick so significantly if he didn’t write something that Heather would consider trying too hard. Because one can only believe that Gaiman was trying hard. All writers should try hard. They should all try as hard as they can. They should push their imagination and their writing to the full limit of their potential. 

As far as “Trying too hard” goes, it’s not a completely negative critique. There are some merits to be given. An A for effort. When someone tells you that you’re trying too hard, know that you are heading in the right direction — perhaps a bit of refining is needed — but don’t let what one reader says hold you back from your next epic story. Try hard and keep improving.

If you enjoyed this article, please check out the What Is… of Writing series:

 

30 Day Writing Challenge: Write the Same Thing Everyday

In order for artists to improve, they need to draw the same thing over and over again. Each time they draw something, they see something different. Something they didn’t notice previously. Each time they draw, they dig a bit deeper. They see angles, colors, textures in a different way. They challenge themselves to be more refined or more creative, bringing something new to the original idea. 

We can apply this creative technique to writing as well. For the next 30 days, I want to challenge you to write about the same thing every day. It can be your chair, your room, your dog, your family, your cup of coffee, anything, but whatever you pick, stick with it for 30 days. Each day, write one new sentence, as long or as short as you want. 

For me, I chose to write about the intersection in front of my apartment. It’s a busy place with a lot going on. It’s noisy. It’s dirty. And each day, I see something a little different in it. Or at least try to. 

Some days I write something really good, other days, I just try to get a sentence down. The goal of this exercise is to practice observing deeper, seeing details that aren’t immediately visible. It also helps you develop a habit. For many people, writing every day can be a challenge, especially if they have a lofty goal, like 2 pages a day or a 1,000 words. This challenge simplifies the process: 1 sentence. Easy. Write about the same thing every day. No need to wait for inspiration, it’s there. Write about that! 

What makes this a challenge is that you need to overcome your own perceived limitations. By day 5, you’ll run out of surface-level stuff to write about. That’s when your creativity really kicks in. That’s when you hold on and discover how your mind actually works. You may feel bored around day 10 or 15, but keep going, because your best sentence may come at day 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, or 30. You may need to get through the shit first. And that’s the last thing about this challenge. It allows you to practice perseverance. And perseverance is essential

I encourage you to start after you finish reading this article. There is no time better than the present. Good luck! I look forward to reading your work. 

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What is a Contrived Story? – The Effects of Forced Writing

The heroine is cornered. Laser beams and death rays are aimed at her. The villain now has his chance to destroy his enemy, leaving him free to take over the world. But then, just before the laser beams and death rays are fully charged, the heroine sees an open panel beneath the floorboard. She heads towards it and escapes. In the same moment, the villain’s goofy sidekick bumps the button and suddenly the weapons of mass destruction are turned upon them. The evil HQ explodes. The heroine gets out in the knick of time, saving the day! 

Looking at this story, you may think a few things: 

“Wow! The heroine got very lucky!” 

“And the bad guys had a series of convenient mistakes.” 

Or you may think, “Hmmm… This story was contrived.” 

That was certainly what Becky thought when she folded the book and read the embossed text of the author’s name, JLL Rubinsteen. 

Rubinsteen is known for his fast pace stories, and while they are sometimes entertaining, many considered his storylines contrived. But what does “contrived” mean? 

When someone is talking about a story being contrived, it usually means that it feels forced. In other words, the author got lazy and rushed. Yep, that’s you, Rubinsteen! 

When Becky picked up the book, she expected an adventure! She wanted to start at one end of the story and arrive at the other, enjoying all the sights and sounds in between. A writer’s responsibility is to pave the roads. However, what a contrive storyteller does is that instead of taking a scenic route, it hops onto the freeway, or when traffic gets heavy, decides to take a shortcut, causing the reader to yes, arrive at the destination, but miss the joy of the ride. 

Take the paragraph at the beginning. The heroine is cornered — a common place for writers to get stuck. When a heroine is trapped, the author might find an easy way for her to escape. In this case, the open panel in the floorboard, an element in the story not mentioned before. It just happened to be there and the heroine happened to see it. Just in time! 

Another example is the goofy sidekick. How convenient of him to bump a button that causes the villain’s plans to backfire. The villain is vanquished and the world is saved. Easy! So easy that it feels forced by the author.

Even though Becky wanted the heroine to win at the end, the way in which it was accomplished made her feel a little ripped off. She invested all her time to read this? And this is how it ends?  

There are arguments that all stories, to some degree, are contrived, because regardless, writers need to weave a tale together, manipulating certain aspects, so that the protagonist can go from the beginning to the end. A story is not like real life and will always be artificial.  

However, we can also agree that some stories are more believable than others. That is because believable stories reveal the details in a functional order, requiring the writer to put in some work, dropping bread crumbs along the way so when the heroine is cornered, the escape route is doesn’t appear magically like a cheat, and the clumsy minion’s mistake is surprising, but not completely random. 

If earlier in the story, Rubinsteen had described the evil lair as being rundown and in need of maintenance, talking about how his unreliable contractors are always leaving jobs unfinished, perhaps the open panel in the floorboard would be more believable.

If Rubinsteen mentioned that the laser beam and death ray rely on a cheap imported generator, because that’s all he could afford, then maybe the slow charging doesn’t seem like such a convenient delay for the heroine.

And finally, if Rubinsteen rounds out the evil sidekick’s character, making him more than a klutz. Then the reader can see that he is struggling with an internal battle over whether to do what his leader says and what his gut is telling him. Then the sudden slip on the button wouldn’t feel like a convenient end, but rather a character overcoming an obstacle. A redemption.  

As you can see, all of these suggestions would require Rubinsteen to do more work, leading to that epic moment where the heroine is cornered by the laser beam and death ray. But it’s worth it, because by putting in the work, the events in the story will feel like they’ve happened naturally, as opposed to feeling artificial and unrealistic. 

Yes, in stories we want heroes to win, mysteries to be uncovered, and lovers to get together, but the journeys in which these objectives are achieved are as important as the results. If a writer rushes through, missing necessary details about plot, characters, and settings, in another word, being too lazy to pave the path for the reader, then their story will ultimately come across as contrived. 

Was there a part of a story that you’ve read or watched recently that felt contrived? Let me know in the comments below, and if you enjoyed this article, please check out the What Is… of Writing series:

Respect Your Project, Finish Your Story

No real writer likes what she’s writing ALL the time, or even MOST of the time. The important thing is to stick with your story until the end. That’s when the magic happens. – Meg Cabot

It’s so easy to give up on a project. You’ll get stuck and bored, and you’ll want to stop. You get another great idea and you’ll want to chase it. But finishing the story you started is so important, here’s why: 

Respect the project:

When you start a project, you’re responsible for it. A project is like a child: it’s born, it needs someone to take care of it and help it grow, and then one day, when it’s developed, it’s sent out into the world. It’s your job to make sure it survives and prospers once you release it, making you proud. You gave the project life and now you have to take care of it. If you don’t, if you’ll simply let it die on the shelf, you’ll rob it of its potential. 

Respect your time:

Think of everything that you could have done if you weren’t writing. You could have spent time with your pet or talked to your spouse. You could have watched a movie or read a book. You could have napped or gotten drunk. There was a lot you could have done, but you chose to write. You chose to spend your limited time on Earth doing this activity. You’re investing your most precious resource into this. It’s like paying for a membership for the gym, showing up, and sitting there for an hour without using the equipment and going home, then being upset because you aren’t seeing any results. Respect your time. Finish your work. 

Okay, let’s say I convinced you and you’ll pull out that half-finished project and write to the end. But where is the end? 

Honestly, you can end a story anywhere (even in a mid-sentence), but that would be disrespecting the audience — unless it’s a really good half a sentence. When the reader starts reading your work, you’ve made a promise that you will give them a sense of resolution, enjoyment, or fulfillment. You don’t want to disrespect your reader’s time either. You want them to come back one day and read your other works. With an honourable completion in mind, there are places that make sense to end a story. 

And as the writer, you get to decide: do you want your story to have an explicit ending or an implicit ending? 

Explicit ending:

When there is nothing more for the reader to know, when all the questions are answered, then it’s an appropriate ending. This type of ending is a nice little bow on a wrapped up story. 

I like to think of these as success or failure stories: 

Did Rocky win his match? Did we save Private Ryan or kill Bill? Did the lovers get together? If your story is about a specific mission, then at the end, the audience should know whether it was accomplished. Did the hero get what he or she wants? Did good conquer evil? 

These types of stories tend to leave the reader satisfied. 

The other type of endings are…

Implicit ending:

Often known as open-ended stories, these endings leave the resolution up to the reader’s interpretation. 

One main example is a…

Cliffhanger ending: 

Which leaves the reader wanting more.

As one mission ends another begins! What adventures are your characters up to next?

A cliffhanger can have the character literally hanging off a cliff, Or it could be done subtly: 

The last scene can be of a man calling his ex girlfriend. Throughout the story, we learn that the man is overcome with guilt. He wants to make amends with his past lover. The story ends before she picks up the phone. The reader wonders, did she answer? Was it the right phone number? If not, what would the man do? The reader draws her own conclusion. 

These types of stories will leave your readers thinking about it even after they’ve put the book down. 

If you are struggling to finish, aim for one of these two endings. Yes, they’re broad, but they will give you a lot of room to make adjustments and edit when it’s done. 

Write to the end (even if it’s bad): 

It’s going to be bad. There’s no avoiding that, so you might as well get over it. After all, that is what editing is here for. The faster you write to the end, the faster you can start editing. Wouldn’t that be nice? 

Remember as the writer, you are the first reader. The first draft is a discovery. You don’t really know what your story is about before you get to the end. You don’t know if it’s going to wrap up nicely or leave the reader wanting more, but having a target gives you direction. 

Let yourself discover, because that is some times where the best words come from. Don’t give up on your writing, no matter how small the project is. Write to the end. 

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What Does “That’s Deep” Mean?

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

When Peter read that passage from one of his favorite books, he paused for a moment and processed the words on the page. On the surface, it was merely describing what Samwise Gamgee saw and how it made him feel. 

Through the cloudy gloom, up upon the mountains, he saw a white star — and that star gave him hope because it shone through all the darkness. 

Yet, there was something more. Something underneath the literal. To which it made him say out loud, “Wow… that’s deep.” 

But what did he mean? Why did that passage out of the thousands of passages in the trilogy stop him? Or better yet, how did it stop him? 

The phrase “that’s deep” when we hear it in a literal sense, sounds like someone’s talking about the ocean floor. While that might sometimes be the case, what Peter meant when he said that’s deep was that the writing was profound. So in order for us to understand what makes something deep, we must understand what makes something profound. 

The word profound has many definitions, but the one we will be relying on is this one: going far beneath what is superficial, external, or obvious.

Yes, Sam Gamgee saw the star — but it was what the star represented that made the passage profound. It was so beautiful that it smote his heart and even looking at all the destruction, he had hope. Perhaps we have all been where Sam Gamgee was — not literally, not Mt Doom — but we have all been in a situation where we felt as though we were ready to surrender. There were moments where we felt hopeless.

Peter certainly did. He was neck-deep in student debt and looking for employment in the entertainment industry. Of course, the world was not looking for another filmmaker, and any project he wanted to get off the ground was consistently met with rejections. He was in the clouds on the dark tor, ready to quit. 

But the star, a light of high beauty can never be dimmed by the shadow. The shadow in Peter’s world was the debt. No matter how deep he falls into debt, his love for filmmaking and storytelling will never die. The star was his passion and when looking up upon it, he remembered the feeling he got when he premiered his first student film in high school. The audience laughed and cheered. It was what he loved doing. It made him happy. It fulfilled him. It kept him warm and made him feel as though life, his little life, was worth living. And that life — that will to live — hangs so high above the debt, that he knew poverty would never make him hate his passion. For he was living for his passion, not for his debt. 

He closed the book and placed it to the side. Peter, filled with hope and inspiration, his white star visible through the darkness, goes and picks up his camera and starts filming. He didn’t ask for permission. He didn’t ask for a budget. He didn’t go get approval or a permit. Like Sam, he’s focused on the twinkling star and not on the forsaken land beneath. 

For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was a small passing thing. 

We all have a Shadow — a capital problem that follows us — but Tolkien doesn’t make it obvious, he layers it with imagery and symbolism. 

Imagery is vivid and descriptive language. It creates visuals in the reader’s mind by appealing to the senses. In this case, sight: “There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while.” 

Symbolism is the use of characters, settings, or objects to present an abstract idea. It holds hidden meanings and requires some deeper thinking to identify. In this example, it was the star and the Shadow. “For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was a light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

Of course, Tolkien didn’t have Peter in mind when he wrote the story. But by using imagery and symbolism, he was able to emotionally impact a wider audience and his writing has lasted generations. That is what profound writing can do. Profound writing transcends time and space. It captures what it is like to be human without ever stating the obvious, “here, this is what you have to do. These are the facts.” It lies not on the surface and requires the individual, with their own values and personal experiences, to dig underneath. And it’s the process of digging that makes a piece of writing deep. 

Is there a profound passage of writing that really resonated with you? I’d love to read it, so please share it in the comments below. And if you’ve enjoyed this article, check out these two other posts in the series:

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Improve Your Writing By Copying

Three weeks ago, I started my journey to type out The Great Gatsby. I remember reading an interview from Johnny Depp saying that this was something Hunter S Thompson did because he wanted to know what it would be like to write a masterpiece. Since then, I was eager to give it a shot, thinking that it would be an enlightening experience. As unpleasant as the current situation is, it had given me some extra hours in the week to put my anxious energy into a new project, so I decided, now is the time.

I’ve read The Great Gatsby exactly ten years ago and remembered feeling little about it. That goes to show how little I knew when I was younger. It was like listening to The Beatles’ Hey Jude and then going, “Who’s Jude?” I’ve missed the point. 

It takes practice in order to have an appreciation for craft, especially when the world is full of junk. Like food, after you limit the amount of sugar you consume, you’d begin to appreciate the complex flavour of vegetables. It’s a beautiful moment when that happens. The same goes for art. When we start noticing the qualities of a craft, we begin to see junk lacking in substance. 

I was confident there was something I could learn from copy The Great Gatsby, as there is copying any masterpiece, regardless of the craft. Learning by replicating is an effective way of recognizing the little details that make up a full piece. A great piece of writing, in the end, is just a combination of words. When you acknowledge each individual word, giving a real moment to type it out, you see each brick for what it is — a unique piece in a mosaic that is easy to miss when looking top down. I wanted to see everything Fitzgerald put into his story that I wouldn’t if I was speeding through it, as I did a decade ago… 

With all that in mind, here are six key areas of The Great Gatsby I wanted to focus on while I’m going through this copying process: 

Word choices: 

Vocabulary is to a writer as to what colours are to a painter. From descriptions to dialogue, I was curious to see all the words that Fitzgerald chose. Some, I’m sure, will confuse me and others will surprise me. When writing, I find myself using the same words over and over again — using colours I’m comfortable with — but by typing out every specific word in someone else’s novel, I’ll hopefully discover new ones and widen the spectrum of my vocabulary. 

Variety of sentences and paragraphs: 

When we read, we are absorbing information, but at that speed, we might miss the rhythm of the language — or at least not be conscious about it. By typing out a story, I will slow down the process of consumption and see the varying lengths of words, sentences and paragraphs. If this was music, I’d not only focused on the lyrics, but I’d also be hearing the tempo of the drumbeat, the harmony of the bass, and the cadence of the melody. I’d see how Fitzgerald draws out a detail in a long expository sentence or increases the pacing in a heated dialogue. 

The order of information: 

Good communication is the delivery of information in a coherent and logical order. Good storytelling, however, is the strategic reveal of details that increases drama and evokes an emotional response. A good story isn’t simply a sequential order of events: this happened and then this happened and then afterward this happened. No! Great writing is magic, because like magic, the principles are the same but instead of sleight of hand it’s with words: hiding, switching and misdirecting. By typing out the novel, I’m hoping to catch F Scott in the act and see what tricks he used to keep us turning the pages.  

Narrator and characters: 

One of the biggest challenges while writing is making sure your characters don’t all sound the same, so that in the readers’ minds, they are all individual people, with personalities, feelings, and beliefs so realistic that they’ll feel as though they’re sitting next to them. It’s certainly a challenge I have, so I’m going to be paying attention to the character construction while typing out The Great Gatsby and see how Fitzgerald helped us identify with Nick, Daisy, and Gatsby. 

Hidden details: 

When you are writing, everything slows down, you begin to notice each sentence, each phrase, and even every syllable. This aspect is fun because you feel a bit like an archaeologist or like the Tom Hanks character in The Da Vinci Code. You study the writing, like The Last Supper, looking for hidden messages and wondering whether the creator expected it to be there at all. 

Is typing out The Great Gatsby as valuable as a creative writing course? Hmmm… That’s a question for another time, but I truly believe that there is a lot to learn from this exercise. You will see how the story is constructed. Like a painting, you’ll experience each brushstroke. Like a song, you’ll be able to hear each note. Like a house, you’ll notice each nail, and that is what copying a piece of work offers you. Additionally, it’s a therapeutic activity, much like knitting, building a LEGO miniature, and solving a jigsaw puzzle. 

If you are interested in following my typing out the Great Gatsby journey, please join me via my YouTube channel every Saturday at 11am PDT. We can chat about all things writing and creativity, or whatever else is on your mind!

If you found this article helpful, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only work that I’m most proud of.

5 Productive Procrastination Tasks for Writers

Sometimes, you don’t feel like writing. You’ve been sitting in front of the computer and nothing is coming out. If you sit for another minute, it’ll be another minute wasted. You resist the urge to scroll social media or clean the junk drawer, because that is, for sure, a waste of time, but what is there to do? 

Stop writing. That’s fine. 

Today might not be the day that you get a lot of words down, but that doesn’t mean it’s a write-off. You CAN procrastinate and still be productive. I’m going to share with you five procrastinating tasks you can do that doesn’t involve increasing your word count. 

1. Research

As a writer, there is always something to research whether it’s detail for your story, publications to submit your work to, or events or courses that you might be interested in attending. What I like to do when I really don’t feel like writing is to find a writing contest and spend some time reading the guideline — and maybe a few of the past winners and the works of the judges. In fact, I procrastinate using this technique so often that I have a whole blog post dedicated to writing contests, check it out, the link is in the description below. 

So give this a shot, next time you don’t feel like writing, look up places to submit your work. It might feel as though you are putting the cart before the horse, but I don’t, I feel this is a good way to understand the market, especially if your writing goal is to get published. 

2. Organize

If you’re like me you may have multiple drafts, multiple stories, and multiple submissions all up in the air. If you do, then this is a good opportunity to organize your folders and make sure you can easily locate the most recent draft of your story when you need it. The better you have access to your work, the more likely you’ll be able to find it and work on it. 

I have a spreadsheet with all my work in progress on it. I have their status (is it still in the works, is the first draft completed and I’m letting it marinate before returning for a second edit, or have I submitted it to a publication and am awaiting the result). I also include other details about the piece including word count and whether it is fiction or nonfiction. If you are using Google Drive, you can just add a link to the draft or the folder it’s in for easy accessibility. Staying organized had made my whole writing process so much more efficient, so I really recommend giving this method a shot if you feel like taking a break from actually writing. 

3. Consume

You should never feel guilty for taking a break from creating to consume, but that is only if you do it right. When I say consume, I don’t mean eating — I mean reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to music — in other words, enjoying something someone else made. And when I say you should consume it in a right way, what I mean is that you should do it actively. Approach it critically to find aspects of the work you like and dislike. Really absorb it so that you are able to reflect on it properly afterwards and record it so you can use some of what you do like in your own work in the future. 

Many successful writers will tell you that in order to be any good, you are going to have to read. Yes, you should definitely read, but there is certainly value in watching movies, television shows, and listening to music or audio books as well. This is if you do it actively.  

4. Revisit Old Work

Now if you really feel like punishing yourself for procrastinating, I recommend that you find a piece of work from your past and reread it. Approach it like you’ve never seen it before and enjoy it. It might feel like you’re taking a trip to cringe city, but there is always a lot you can get from this torturous exercise. 

First, you’ll get to see how your writing has evolved over time. The thoughts you had when you were younger might not be the same as the ones you have now. I like this because I get to see my progress. Second, if this piece is something that I gave up on, maybe now I have the ability to fix it and make it better. If I feel so inspired, I can take this procrastination opportunity to edit it, which would be incredibly productive. But don’t approach it with that intention, approach it as your ideal reader, not your critic. 

5. Be Creative

If the words simply aren’t coming to you today, but you still want to be creative, you can! Draw a picture, paint a painting, play an instrument, grab your camera and take some photos, film a video — there are many things you can do to still be creative and through those other artistic endeavours you do to see the world in a different way. 

After all, the way you show something in writing may be very different from a drawing. What I’ve been doing a lot of is trying to illustrate an idea I have. I’m not a great illustrator, but it takes my mind off of words for a bit. If you really want to get your creative juices flowing, that’s a really good way. 

There you go! Those are 5 productive procrastination ideas for when you don’t feel like writing. Are there any you are currently doing? Let me know in the comments! 

If you found this article helpful, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only work that I’m most proud of.

What is Pretentious Writing?

What makes one writer formal, important, talented, and cultured — and another pretentious? 

This is a tale of two writers. Devon and Jessica. 

Devon is an aspiring novelist, he has this epic fantasy novel in his head and has spent many evenings and weekends outlining and drafting. He’s an enthusiast of all things mythology and considers himself a primo expert in medieval weapons. But he knows something is holding him back. Gatekeepers. He simply needs to meet the right people and get them to read his work. 

Jessica is an accountant and has never thought of herself as much of a writer. It was only when her grandmother started feeling ill that she even considered picking up a pen. After visiting her grandmother one afternoon and hearing her stories about her childhood in Vietnam, she decided that it was a story worth recording. 

Devon and Jessica although had different intentions for their writing, found themselves both applying for a spot in the local university’s creative writing program. One of the requirements for admission was to supply a 300-word essay explaining their writing goals and what they hope to achieve from the courses. 

Reid is an administration associate for the university and it’s his job to review the applications and create a short list of applicants. First he read Devon’s and it went like this:

As I commence my journey to ascertain knowledge to optimally communicate my story with the citizens of tomorrow, I aim to transcend the lives of those I have yet to meet as the literary legends I applauded had accomplished for me. 

Reid looked up from Devon’s essay, opened and closed his eyes to clear his vision and looked down at it again. Reid doesn’t say it out loud or announce it to his colleagues. He didn’t pass the essay around so it could be ridiculed, but something was glaringly obvious about Devon’s writing: it was pretentious. 

But how? 

While Reid avoided over analyzing the essay in the moment, there were a few aspects of Devon’s writing that couldn’t be ignored. 

1. Lack of Clarity

Big stuffy words made the writing hard to read. Although long complex words can often accentuate a piece of writing, like a pinch of salt can bring out the flavour of food, overdoing it can leave the meal inedible. The same goes for writing. 

2. Attempting to Be Impressive As Opposed to Expressive

All the choices made in the writing is in an effort to impress Reid. Devon was clearly flexing his vocabulary muscles — perhaps writing with a thesaurus beside him — and in doing so, failed to express himself in a genuine way. It comes across as inauthentic, as though the essay had been written by a robot programmed for optimum results, as opposed to a human aimed to connect. 

3. No Awareness of the Reader

Perhaps Devon had misinterpreted what the essay wanted. Reid was not looking to be blown away, but rather, he simply wanted to understand the person behind the submission. He wanted to get an impression of who Devon was. And perhaps he did. Devon is someone who, despite his insecurity as a writer, deems himself to be an intellectual specimen. However, by using words one wouldn’t use when speaking, Devon doesn’t appear smarter, but rather confused. 

Pretentious writing is unpleasant to read. It’s often composed with the attempt to stump the reader, giving the writer a feeling of superiority, like a specialist (a mechanic, a lawyer, or a politician) who uses jargon. However, all it achieves is a failure in communication. Pretentious writing stems from lack of confidence, where writers feel as though their ideas, as is, are not strong enough, so they need to juice it up with words or concepts that don’t serve the story in order to give the material bulk. 

Reid placed Devon’s essay to the side and picked up Jessica’s. Here’s a passage from it:

When my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, I thought I was going to lose her right away. But while some misfortunes take loved ones away quickly, my grandmother stayed strong and remained. Long enough for her to tell me the story of how she immigrated to Canada. Through this heart-wrenching process, I realized that I was given a second chance to know the woman that was my hero. Now knowing the stories she had in her, I feel it is my duty to capture them and share them with the world. 

One word popped up into Reid’s head after he put Jessica’s essay down. Vulnerability. It was not brilliantly written, but it captured why Jessica had decided to take on the gruelling task of writing. Where Devon was insecure, u sing his words as a shield to protect himself, Jessica was emotionally exposed on paper for Reid to see. 

Perhaps that’s the essence of pretentious writing. A piece that strives to impress but fails to connect. 

What do you think? Is there a piece of work you find pretentious? Let me know in the comments below.

If you want more videos about writing and the creative process, please check out my YouTube channel. 

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How to Record Your Ideas With a Messaging App

When I have a great idea, it’s often hard to pull out a notepad, grab my pen, and find a flat surface to write on. All those little elements are friction and even the act of pulling out my notebook makes me question… is this idea even good enough to write down? Is this worth it? 

Recording, organizing, and revisiting your ideas is a very important part of being a writer, so this was something I wanted to figure out. How can I make this a part of my process? 

This is how: messaging apps. 

I learned about this method from how Judd Apatow wrote Knocked Up. During breaks while shooting 40 Year Old Virgin, Apatow was emailing himself story ideas on his Blackberry. I thought that was brilliant, because email is already a platform that organizes content for you. You don’t need an extra note-taking app for that. It’s also up in the cloud or whatever, so you can access it on your phone, computer, tablet, whatever. 

For me, I felt that email was even a step too far. For initial ideas, I use something simpler and more informal and that’s messaging apps. 

I’m currently using Facebook Messenger to track all my ideas when I’m away from my computer which is very often. I like Facebook Messenger because I can access it on my computer easily and it allows me to delete messages too. It’s more personal preference than anything else. Here’s how I do it. 

First, I set it up as though I’m having a conversation with myself. I’m the only one I’m talking to. 

Then I treat it as though I’m telling the idea to myself. It’s a little conversation. You know how you sometimes talk out loud to yourself? Do that, but message yourself. 

It can be anything from a question, to a title, to a paragraph. Sometimes I jot down a theme or something interesting I saw. 80% is nonsense, but 20% are pretty good ideas and stories I might pursue. This one for example: A boy going off to buy clothes for himself for the first time to impress a girl. 

I don’t know what I’m going to do with that, but it’s definitely something I can expand on if I’m ever feeling completely drained on ideas.. 

What’s great about it is that these ideas are all kept in chronological order like a message thread, so I’m able to scroll back and find the date when I jotted it down. It actually brings me back to that moment where I came up with the idea: waiting for the bus or walking or having a drink at a bar. It’s a little snapshot of a moment in my life that I get to revisit, even if I was alone with my thoughts. 

I have been using this method of tracking down my ideas for over a year now and I still have ideas in here that I haven’t gotten to yet. It’s fun to scroll back and see what I wrote. 

It might seem sad as though you are having a conversation with yourself, but this is very useful for me. So I recommend giving it a shot and if you do, let me know how it goes in the comments below. 

I made it my goal this year to come up with an idea — regardless of how bad it is — every day. If you want 10 measurable writing goals? Check out this video here. 

If you found this article helpful, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only work that I’m most proud of.

Read This Before You Quit Writing

You’ve written a story over and over again. You’ve written many stories over and over again. You’ve persisted as long as you could and you cannot handle another rejection. You feel it’s time to quit. 

That’s a very natural feeling. When we try to do something that is very hard it’s easy to feel as though we are wasting time or that it’s no longer fulfilling and we are not seeing progress. We are essentially beating our head against a brick wall, torturing ourselves to make something that nobody else wants to consume. 

You’ve given it your best shot, but you are still so far from your writing goals.

Before you quit, hear me out. It is completely fine to quit. I’ve quit many things in my life and when I quit something I hate doing, I found myself gravitating to something I enjoy. So quiting is good! But understand why you want to quit. Are you quitting because you hate doing it? Or are you quitting because you feel as though you are not good enough to advance to the next level? 

I didn’t start out wanting to be a writer. I wanted to be a director and an actor. The thing is, the more I did that: the more I hated being on set and memorizing lines. I put three full years into pursuing those two careers, but in the end, I came to the realization that I didn’t even know what those jobs required to begin with. It took the doing for me to understand the industry I was getting into. 

See, I was thinking about that as a job, something I HAVE to do every day. Something to pay for all my expenses. Thinking of it as a job sucked the life out of it, especially when I was starting out. It placed so much pressure on me because I wanted to do well and impress people so they will hire me again. Not everything you do needs to be a job! 

I like to play hockey. And I’m at the age where it’s incredibly obvious that I’ll never play it in any professional manner. I’m too old and I’m not that good. Still, I like to play it. I’m a part of a beer league and it’s a big part of who I am. Does anyone aside from my team care if we win or lose? No! Sometimes I feel like we don’t even care. We just like playing. 

The same goes for writing. 

Not everything you write needs to be for a professional reason or to get published. You can still do it! You can still be a writer and not publish your work. You can still be a writer and not share it with anyone. You can just write because it’s something you enjoy doing. 

Don’t let external pressure force you to stop doing something you enjoy. If you have a day job and you want to write on your free time, do it without considering where you are going to publish it. People watch movies and play video games and scroll social media. So don’t feel guilty for wasting your time doing something you enjoy. Do it for yourself. Everything you do, do it for yourself. 

And the beauty of writing is, it’s not like hockey, there is no age limit or physical requirement. You can do it until you are old and withered. 

If you want to quit publishing your work. Fine, but I encourage you not to quit writing because writing is to the soul what eating healthy and exercising is to the body. 

What challenges are you facing as a writer? Please let me know in the comments below.

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