The Blog

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How I’m Building a Daily Writing Habit

It can be difficult to build a new habit. This is true even when the habit relates to something you really want to do like finish a creative project, become healthier or learn a new skill. That’s okay. We’re all human and we all struggle with self-improvement: especially when we have comfy sofas and tasty food and long Netflix queues.

My resolution for 2015 was to build the habit of writing creatively every day. My time is limited and in this season of my life I don’t have the time or space to sit down and dedicate hours and hours a week to work on my novel. I decided that I could, however, commit to twenty minutes per day.

I downloaded a chart to track my progress, printed it out and stuck it on the wall by my desk. (Here’s more about the chart I’m using). Then, I got stuck in.

The first couple of months went well. The idea of writing every day and recording my progress was a novelty, and I completed the ‘challenge’ on far more days than I didn’t. But by about March, that novelty was wearing off. I had a nasty cold. We went away for a long weekend. I just didn’t feel like it. My momentum was well and truly lost.

Happily, during the last four weeks I’ve got back on track. The main way I’ve done this is by being really strict about the exact time when I do my creative writing. For me it’s really helped to attach the habit to one I already have.

Here’s how it works: my daughter’s bedtime routine starts around seven. This routine happens every night because it’s a habit we’ve formed out of necessity. In order to maximise the chances of entrenching my new writing routine into my day, I’ve added it to the end of the bedtime routine. Once the little one is in bed and asleep, I go straight to my desk and fit in twenty minutes of writing time before dinner.

Of course, there are still days when I’m tired or busy or not in the mood. But it’s much harder to put off my writing time until an unspecified ‘later’ when I’ve carved out space in my daily routine for it. Plus, the fact that it takes place right after a task that I already do means that it’s much harder to lose track of time and forget about it.

This method is mentioned in lots of other posts about habit building around the web. You might like to read How to build a habit (with science not willpower), Happiness Experiment no.33: Do it after or The Beginner’s Habit Program.

*Header photo by Sam.

 

 

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10 Things Parenthood Has Taught Me About Productivity

1. Always do the most important thing first.

2. Be honest about what really needs to be done and what you can let go.

3. You can get a lot done in twenty minutes.

4. Almost all of us function better with a routine (even if it’s a very loose one).

5. It’s easier to build a new habit if you schedule it just after one you already have.

6. There’s a lot of power in a restorative cup of tea.

7. Seize the moment when you have it.

8. There are few things as inspiring as a walk in the fresh air.

9. A weekly to do list reflects human ebb and flow better than a daily one.

10. Schedule ahead whenever you can. (I’m still getting to grips with this one, which is why this is being posted on a Thursday instead of the usual Wednesday).

*Header photo by Denise P.S.

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Four Effective Ways to Maximise Your Blogging Time

Blogging can be incredibly valuable… but it’s also time-consuming. When I work with clients to improve their blogs they almost always ask how they can balance building an effective blog with the limited time they have available.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a definitive answer for this one. (My time machine is broken, sorry!) The reality is that if you want to build a blog that your audience will want to read, you’re going to need to dedicate a fair chunk of time to it. Luckily there are some easy ways to maximise your time. Here are four of my suggestions:

One: Use an editorial calendar

A lot of time can be wasted in simply deciding what to blog about. I don’t know about you, but if I don’t already have an idea planned when I sit down to write a post, I’ll loose time staring at the blank screen waiting for an idea to spark. There’s a pretty straight-forward way to get around this: use an editorial calendar. It doesn’t matter whether you use a super-organised plug-in, an old fashioned paper calendar or even just a scribbled list of post titles: making a note of ideas as and when they arise will save you time when you sit down to write.

Two: Keep a research folder

Here’s a tip: set up a favourites folder in your web browser to save web pages that will help you with your blog. This could include relevant news stories, useful statistics, stock images and other blog posts that have inspired you. Not only will you have those items close to hand when you start writing, you’ll also have a handy folder of inspiration should you need help coming up with ideas for your editorial calendar.

Three: Schedule in advance

I schedule most of my blog and social media content in advance. That doesn’t mean that I’m not engaging, it doesn’t mean that my content is less valuable and it doesn’t mean that I can’t make changes later on. What it does mean is that I’m able to maximise free time to make sure I have content ready to go when I’m busy. If you create and schedule content in advance, you can take advantage of a quiet couple of hours to ‘stock’ your blog with ready posts for the next couple of weeks. If you only blog in real time, you’re much more likely to get overwhelmed and miss posts completely.

Four: Introduce regular posts

Do you currently use regular post types on your blog? If not, you might want to think about it. This type of post can be a helpful way to add structure to your content creation and take out a lot of the guesswork. Regular posts, like my monthly ‘Round Up‘ posts, can be a great way to keep content flowing on your blog. They’ll help you fill your editorial calendar, can be quicker to write as you’re using a familiar format, and provide consistently valuable content for your audience.

I’m always on the look out for new tips for effective blogging. If you have a trick I haven’t mentioned here, why not pop it in the comments?

*Header image by Ryan Johnson

 

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Round Up: April 2015

A few highlights from my month:

  • Running a Writing for the Web training day for a new client.
  • Spending the Easter weekend in Whitby.
  • Finishing the fourth draft of my novel-in-progress (yes, finally!).
  • Delving into my (teetering!) to read pile.
  • Switching up my work routine a bit.
  • Watching my little one learn to crawl!
  • Sharing six recommended reads here on the blog.
  • Enjoying the sunshine with long walks in the park and alfresco dining!

A few highlights from around the web:

How’s your April been?

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Six Recommended Reads

I’ve read some great books so far this year. Here are my six favourites: all highly recommended.

The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth

This is a great book and I got to meet the author at a York Literature Festival event last month. She was lovely, which is obviously a bonus.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

There’s a reason this book has been everywhere over the last six months. It’s beautifully written and brilliantly weird!

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

So far I’ve recommended this book to clients, friends and family members. Now I’m recommending it to you! It’s part mystery, part thriller and part a valuable insight into Dementia.

Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education by Jane Robinson

A non-fiction book made my list! I read this primarily for research purposes, but found it absolutely fascinating.

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

I interviewed Carys Bray for a feature I wrote for Mslexia last year, so I was thrilled when my book club chose to read this. I’m not sure how a book that’s so sad can be so heartwarming, but Bray has somehow pulled it off.

The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

It took me a really long time to get into this. That’s not an exaggeration; it sat a quarter read on my bedside table for a year before I picked it up again a few weeks ago. This time something clicked and I rushed through the rest of it. Michaels is a poet and the language of this novel is amazingly rich and detailed. It was worth the wait!

What have you been reading recently? I’d love to hear your recommendations! (Although, they may have to wait a while considering the current state of my to read pile…)

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A Little Tip on Passive Voice

A couple of weeks ago I critiqued a fiction manuscript. Last week I edited a short biography for a catalogue entry. The two pieces of writing were different in pretty much every way except one: they both used passive voice.

Passive voice is something I come across regularly. It’s a style of writing that focuses on the action instead of the subject. Here’s an example:

Active voice: I closed the door.

Passive voice: The door was closed.

This is a very basic example, but I bet it give you a sense of why passive voice is often best avoided (especially in sales copy). Put simply: passive voice makes it harder for the reader to connect to the key person/object that’s being written about.

This is important because:

1. The reader is less likely to get excited.

2. The reader is less likely to emphasise.

3. The reader is less likely to feel part of the action.

4. The reader is more likely to get bored.

5. The reader is more likely to get confused and give up.

Of course there are exceptions (there are always exceptions!) and sometimes there’s a very good reason to use passive voice. However, I’ve found that many people resort to using passive voice only because they’re trying to avoid using ‘I’ or ‘We’ at the start of every sentence. This is particularly common in biographies (like the one I was editing for the catalogue) and about pages.

If your website copy feels a bit flat, this might be why. I’d suggest you take a close look at it and see if switching your sentences around to the active voice could give your website more energy.

After all, sometimes a really small change can make a big difference.

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Round Up: March 2015

A few highlights from my month;

  • Turning 27 (today!)
  • Spotting daffodils popping up all over the city.
  • Starting to blog about what freelancing looks like for me post-baby.
  • Having fun writing fiction for little people.
  • Sharing four tips for beating the blank page and getting started with a writing project.
  • Celebrating my first ever Mother’s Day.
  • Making plans for training events later on in the year.
  • Starting work with a handful of new clients.

A few highlights from around the web;

How’s your March been?

*header photo by fourthandfifteen on Flickr.

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Freelancing Post-Baby; Part One

I’ve been promising a blog post about my working life post-baby for a while now. This is a big topic and not one that I’ll be able to cover in one post. It’s also an ever-changing process; what’s working this week may not be working next week…

I ‘returned to work’ when my daughter was a couple of weeks old. I say ‘returned to work’ in inverted commas because my working life post-baby has little resemblance to my working life before she arrived.

For me, this feels like a very good thing. I love that I have the freedom to spend all day with my daughter and keep working in a job I enjoy. I don’t have to make any tricky decisions about returning to a job outside of my home, and I don’t have to enrol her in nursery unless I want to. Of course, being a work-from-home-mum is not an easy option and it requires a whole lot of organisation to fit everything in. For me, it’s worth it.

Let me state this part clearly: I work far fewer hours now than I used to. I don’t get up at a silly time in the morning (well, I often do, but that’s just because I have a baby) and I don’t spend my whole evening working. I’ve found a routine that fits at the moment, and I’m letting that routine guide how much work I take on, not the other way round.

One of the things I thought a lot about before the little one arrived was how I would distinguish between working time and non-working time. Pre-baby this was easy, I was generally working between the hours of around 10-4 and not working outside of those hours. Now things are a little blurrier and my working hours shift from day to day (generally depending on nap time). I didn’t want to be in a situation that when I was sat at my desk I felt like I should be playing with the little one and when I was playing with her I felt like I should be at my desk.

So, in came the block system. In a normal working day I do two working blocks. These can be anything from an hour to two and a half hours long. I start these blocks during nap time and on a good day I finish them when nap time ends. Often this doesn’t work out quite so conveniently(!) and when the little one wakes up early she plays in the office with me until I reach a stopping point.

The block system is good because it means I’m not constantly nipping back to my desk to finish things off through the day. It also gives me more separation between work and play; once I’ve finished a working block I feel no guilt about the work I’m not doing until I get back to my desk and start the next one. It’s manageable (I’m not trying to fit a ridiculous amount of work into the day) and flexible (I can do the two blocks at any time; if I don’t get both done during the day I can fit one in after Mr M gets home). Most importantly, this system leaves us plenty of time to fit in other activities and get out of the house together.

Freelancing with a baby is definitely do-able, but you need to have a flexible routine!

 

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Four Writing Tricks to Help You Beat the Blank Page

Many people I speak to about writing (whether we’re talking about blog posts, PDF guides or novels) find that starting is the hardest part. I can see where they’re coming from. It can be extremely daunting to begin, especially when you strongly suspect that those words won’t be good enough. But here’s the thing: you just need to start.

There’s a line about writing that I find myself quoting often: ‘the enemy is not the badly written page; it is the empty page.’ After all, a badly written page can be edited into something better. An empty page will always be empty.

When I have these conversations, I get the feeling people are hoping I’ll pass on some kind of industry secret. Trouble is, there is no secret. The only way to produce written content is to sit down and get on with it. There are, however, a few ways that I like to trick my mind into getting those all-important first few words down.

Here are some of the techniques I find helpful.

Start on paper

Perhaps this will work for you, perhaps it won’t, but I often find it easier to get started on paper than I do on a screen. Any writing you do on paper can be rough, scribbled over and crossed out. Though you can, of course, get rid of any writing you do on a screen too, there’s something about working on paper that feels less formal.

Note down your headings first

A blank page can be frightening. If you know the basic outline of what you’re working on, writing down the headings first can be a great way to cover up the blank page and convince yourself that all you’re doing is ‘filling in the blanks.’ I do this a lot when I’m working on blog posts. In fact, I did it for this one!

Get it out in bullet point form

Sometimes it’s hard to get started because you have so much to say that you don’t know what to share first. In these cases it can be helpful to jot down all your ideas as bullet points. That way you don’t need to worry about forgetting to include any of your thoughts as they’re all there already. You’ll also be able to play around with the structure on the page rather than trying to do it in your head. (Which, trust me, is much harder!)

Write ‘badly’ on purpose

First drafts are often unrecognisable from the finished product. That’s okay. If you’re worried about writing something bad, why not give yourself permission to do exactly that? Doing this can take away a lot of the pressure you’re feeling and give you the freedom to create a rough draft. Once you have that draft, give yourself a bit of time away from it then come back and start editing. Bonus: often when you come back you’ll find the ‘bad’ draft is considerably better than you expected.

Do you have any other tricks like these? I’d love to hear them if you do!

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My Favourite Piece of Creativity Advice

There’s a lot of creativity advice out in the world. Most of it is either too general or too weirdly specific to be of much use. There is one piece of advice, however, that works. I imagine you’ve heard this piece of advice over and over again, so much so that you probably don’t really register it anymore.

That advice? Your most creative thinking will happen away from your workspace.

You see: there’s an awful lot of truth in this. Hardly anyone has big ideas sat at their desk. I know I don’t. Whether I’m looking for brand new inspiration or a creative solution to a piece-in-progress, I don’t expect it to come to me when I’m sat tapping away at my laptop.

The of-course-that’s-so-obvious-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that-before ideas and the wow-perhaps-I’m-a-genius ideas come when you’re doing something else. Where they’ll come is unique to you. Some people find they come when they’re doing manual tasks that keep their hands busy but leave their brains idle. Some people find their creative minds work best when they’re exercising. Personally, I like to get out into the fresh air and look at things. I get a lot of ideas in the park, or by the river, or (frequently!) at historical houses.

This past year I’ve spent a lot less time at my desk and a lot more time getting out and about with my daughter. I did worry for a while that it would be difficult to be creative during my first few years as a mum. Luckily, that hasn’t been my experience at all. The time I spend out and about, experiencing new things and enjoying life has fed my creative mind and helped me come up with countless new ideas. Now, if only I could find the time to execute them all…

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