writing

Beginners: A “Writing Strategy” Isn’t What You Think It Is

I like to keep track of which questions I get asked about writing and how often. Sometimes I’m surprised by the results. For instance:

One of the most common questions I’m asked by aspiring and beginning writers is “What’s your writing strategy” or “What should my writing strategy be?”

If you’re asking established writers this question, a “writing strategy” is not what you think it is. Yes, you need to understand writing strategies – but no, I don’t have just one, and neither should you.

Image: Blog post title image with name of this post and URL, on top of an image of parchment and pen.

What a Writing Strategy Isn’t

When beginners ask “what’s your writing strategy?” or “what should my writing strategy be?”, they typically mean “How do you get your writing done?” or “How can I get my writing done?”

Since a “strategy” is by definition a means to achieve a goal, it makes sense that some people would express a question about how to do the writing in terms of a “writing strategy.” If the goal is to have written, what are the means by which writers achieve that?

There’s just one problem:

The goal of writing is never “to have written.”

It’s really not. And I say this as someone who will fill entire notebook pages just because it feels good to make the pretty letters with my nice pen with the good ink. Even then, the goal is not “to have written”; the goal is the sweet, sweet dopamine rush I get from putting the letters on the page.

All writing has a purpose beyond having been written. Most writing has several purposes. When I write a novel, for instance, one of my purposes is to entertain my audience. Another is to tell a coherent story, with a coherent message (though what that message is will depend in part on the reader’s interpretation). Yet another is to add to the depth and complexity of the universe I’m creating through the novel series.

Likewise, when I write marketing materials for clients in exchange for pay, I’m pursuing a set of goals set by me and by the client. I’m seeking to persuade or inform a particular audience on a particular topic. Because so much of my paid work focuses on thought leadership, I’m often trying to build my client’s ethos with a professional audience – usually their professional peers, or other businesses that might seek out my client’s expertise. I’m trying to write something an editor will accept without too much reworking. I’m trying to write something I haven’t written a million times before already, because I, personally, loathe boredom.

“How do you get from having an idea to having written it down in A Form” is the writing process. “How do you make that writing fulfill its intended purpose” is the writing strategy.

What a Writing Strategy Is

The reason I wince at the question “What is your writing strategy?” is that I don’t have just one writing strategy. No good writer has only one writing strategy. Rather, we cultivate a collection of strategies, which we deploy in various ways in order to meet certain goals.

One of the oldest writing strategies in fiction, for example, is “Show, don’t tell.” But it’s not the ideal strategy for every fiction situation. Plenty of things in fiction can be told rather than shown. Need to inform the reader about some background detail or explain quickly how these six people got in the same room at 10 am on a Sunday? You can tell that stuff. It’s fine.

Another fiction writing strategy is to reveal details about characters through dialogue, rather than by exposition or other means. Again, this is not ideal in every situation. Deciding when to use dialogue and when to use other ways to build your characters is part of the art of writing fiction.

The question is: What are you trying to do in any given situation? When you’re sitting at your desk, writing this scene in this story, what does the scene need to do? Does it need to set up the stakes of the story? Does it need to plant seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind that maybe Sneaky McCruelVillain isn’t as trustworthy as they claim to be? Does it need to demonstrate that the character really has learned their lesson and can now defeat the bad guy (who or whatever the “bad guy” is)?

The choice of things like showing versus telling, dialogue versus exposition, and so on will depend on the goal to be achieved by that particular line or scene in the piece. No writer has one singular “writing strategy” for fiction because no one “writing strategy” can do everything a particular scene might need to do.

There are probably hundreds of different strategies that can be used for writing fiction. I’ve probably used most or all of them at some point in my career, and I’ll probably use most or all of them again before I die.

Non-fiction, too, has a vast range of strategies. Most readers are aware that these strategies often differ from strategies for writing fiction, even if they don’t realize they know. For instance, finding dialogue in the middle of a peer-reviewed research article on RNA transcription would baffle most readers. No matter how effective dialogue is as a strategy for developing a story in fiction, it is not an effective strategy for explaining the methods used to draw certain conclusions about RNA transcription in a laboratory setting. And neither the fiction story nor the lab report use the same strategies that a marketing writer would use to get someone to buy a product.

So What Should Beginners Do?

First, embrace the difference between a writing process and writing strategies. You need both. You’ll spend your entire writing career learning more about both and refining both. (Trust me; I’ve been at this for almost 40 years.)

Some basic tips for your writing process:

  • The most effective process will always be the one that works for you when you’re trying to use it. If anything stops working, try something else.
  • Many people find they get more writing done if they have a daily writing routine. The bare-bones version is “pick a time and place, and be there every day, doing writing.”
  • Don’t let perfection stop you. If you don’t have a really good first sentence, skip the first sentence or skip the first paragraph/scene entirely. Just start writing some part you really like. You can always come back later and fix the beginning.
  • If it helps, password protect your document or hide your notebook so no one will ever see your draft. You decide when people see the finished work.

Some basic tips for your writing strategies:

  • Whenever you start writing a story, scene, essay, or anything else, ask yourself, “What does this story/scene/essay need to do?” (Hint: Teachers usually give you this answer on the assignment sheet. For writing your own stories and so on, you’ll need to decide what the writing needs to do.)
  • Once you’ve decided what the thing needs to do, ask “What would be a good way to make that happen?”
  • Try things that sound weird, just to see what happens. If you hate cheesy villain speeches in which the villain reveals their entire plan just before the hero escapes, write one anyway. You might still think it’s a terrible strategy for understanding the villain’s plan, but you might learn something about your villain you didn’t know before. At the very least, you’ll be able to say, “I hate the cheesy villain speech strategy because I’ve tried it and it is not effective.”
  • For highly-structured writing like legal motions and lab reports, ask “What does this document need to do, and how does the structure help it do that?”

One of the most baffling things for new writers encountering the concept of the writing strategy is that there are very rarely hard and fast rules. Strategies are chosen based on what the written piece needs to do, whether that’s entertain, inform, persuade, or something else.

A lot of new writers are used to having other people set the parameters for a piece of writing, which makes choosing strategies easier. When it’s just you and the page, there are fewer rules. Suddenly, you’re not just in charge of making the words go on the paper. Now you’re also in charge of why that matters. What do the words need to do? Who do they need to do it for (or to)? What result should come from someone reading what you write? Does that result change if the reader changes?

It’s fine to change your mind about the answers to these questions mid-draft. The whole point of a draft is to put something down, so you can work with it in editing. If you decide halfway through the villain is really the hero or that in fact you hate Local College U and never want to attend, roll with it! Just fix it before you let someone else read it.


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satire, fiction and humor

The Worst Thing I Ever Did In a Video Game (So Far)

Everyone has a story. A “this is the worst thing I ever did in a video game” story. A “I think this proves what a horrible person I really am inside” story. A “really, it’s the game’s fault for even making this an option” story.

Here’s mine.

This is the worst thing I’ve ever done in any video game….so far.

Image: Blog post title image with the title, URL, and a screenshot of an extremely sad Sim.

Aspiring to Greatness

In late 2017, I finally bought The Sims 4. I’ve been a fan of the Sims franchise since 2000, but I’ve always been notoriously late getting on board with new releases.

One of the first things I pounced on, when I got The Sims 4, were lifetime aspirations. The Sims 3 had a lifetime aspiration system, but it wasn’t as nuanced as 4’s, and I really liked the opportunity to complete specific tasks and to switch lifetime aspirations.

Because I’m definitely a more horrible person than I pretend to be, the very first lifetime aspiration I ever gave a Sim was the Public Enemy aspiration.

Aspirations have about four tiers each. Each tier has various tasks a Sim has to complete. Some of these tasks can take quite a while – in some cases, a Sim’s entire life (“have a child or grandchild reach the top of a career”). Others are fairly easy to knock off (“talk about grilled cheese with 5 Sims”). And some are pretty rare on their own, but can be made to happen by a particularly diabolical player.

“Witness another Sim’s death,” in the Public Enemy aspiration, is one of the third kind.

Normally, it takes a while for a Sim to die in front of you. But as every Sims player knows, the game gives you plenty of ways to speed up the process.

One of the most beloved ways to kill Sims these last 20+ years has been to have them jump in a swimming pool, then delete the ladder. The Sims 4 stole this option from us, however, by simply allowing the Sims to climb out the side of the pool. Like normal humans. Boring, self-sufficient normal humans.

Sims in 4 can’t get out of the pool, however, if you build a fence around it. So that’s what I did. The “death” half of “witness another Sim’s death”: Check.

But I also had to contend with the whole “witness” part. As a newcomer to The Sims 4, I wasn’t sure what it meant. Did “witness another Sim’s death” mean my Sim need only to be present on the lot when another Sim died? Or did my Sim have to watch the entire process?

Sims have notoriously short attention spans, and they take a notoriously long time to die of exertion in a swimming pool. There was no way my Sim would stand at the side of the pool for the entire time it took her party guests to drown.

Not unless I made her.

I bought a comedy microphone and set it at the poolside, facing so that my Sim was facing an audience of doomed swimmers. Then I had her stand there and tell jokes. Until someone died.

It Gets Worse

Honestly, I thought that making my Sim tell jokes to a pool full of her neighbors until they drowned was the worst possible thing that could have happened.

I mean, that I could have done.

I mean, that I did.

But no. As if to punish me for this horrible digital life choice, things in my game got infinitely worse.

First, the Grim Reaper showed up. This isn’t, in itself, all that bad. The Grim Reaper has shown up in every Sims installment whenever a Sim dies. We all kind of like Grim by now.

Except Grim couldn’t actually get into the pool to reap anyone’s souls, because of that fence I put up to keep the victims from saving themselves from death by drowning.

When Grim found he couldn’t actually do his job, he ended up wandering into the house. He helped himself to some snacks and then decided to watch television.

Turns out the Grim Reaper likes rom-coms. They make him…flirty.

And that’s how my Sim ended her day of comedy and death by making out with the Grim Reaper.

It Gets Even Worse

The Sims 4 has by far the most nuanced mood system of any Sims game so far. Sims have access to a wide range of moods, and can even die of extreme moods, like excessive anger or hilarity.

The vanilla mood system is weird and sometimes difficult to manipulate. As a brand new Sims 4 player, I certainly wasn’t ready for what happens when a Sim jokes a half-dozen of her neighbors to death and then gets smoochy with the Grim Reaper:

She got “Very Sad.”

All the time.

I tried removing all the dead bodies, the comedy microphone, and eventually the entire pool. I kicked Grim off the lot. I sent my Sim for a jog, for a nice hot bath, for a cup of mood-changing tea. I cranked her mood-changing paintings to high.

Nothing I did made her feel better. Nothing.

My Sim just kept crying. And making her spouse sad. And pissing off their toddler by being too sad to read books or play dolls. Her work performance tanked. She just kept painting the same crying rabbit over and over. She wouldn’t even fight her declared enemy anymore!

Since my Sim clearly no longer had anything to live for, I decided to embrace the depression lifestyle. Every time her interaction menu gave me the option to do a Sad activity, I did it.

Crying in bed. Watching sad movies. Sobbing at the graves of her deceased neighbors.

That last one…actually perked her up a bit. Enough that the interaction menu gave her the option to “Make Fun of” the dead.

My Sim found this hilarious. She began telling jokes again.

At the grave.

To her toddler.

And that’s how I learned exactly how horrible a human being I really am.

…So Far

To date, this remains the worst thing I have ever done in a video game. But even as we speak, I am working on an even more dastardly plan.

This one is in Skyrim, on the Xbox – no mods, no console commands. Nothing except exploiting things the game will already let me do. (Really, the developers should have seen this one coming).

That’s all I’m going to say, in case it fails. If it doesn’t, I’ll be back, confessing the new worst thing I ever did in a video game. Stay tuned.


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neurodivergence, the creative process

“Too Lazy”? Try Not Lazy Enough.

While writing an article for Medium earlier today, I discussed the importance of rebooting after the hard work of creating.

Matthew Inman at The Oatmeal calls this phase “breathing in.” The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People refers to it as “sharpening the saw.” I think of it as “rebooting.”

Whatever you decide to call it, the fact is that if the quality and/or quantity of your output is declining, it’s probably not because you’re too lazy. It’s probably because you’re not lazy enough.

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We All Work Too Much

Yes, of course I’d say that. I’m a confessed workaholic whose addiction has nearly killed me more than once. But here’s the thing: It’s not just me.

Remember the 40-hour workweek? For most US adults, it’s more like 47 hours, according to one Gallup poll. Millennials are particularly bad about overworking, being more likely to agree to take on even more work or to refuse to step away from work entirely even for short periods.

A 2010 LexisNexus study found that many workers reported being on the verge of “breakdown” under the onslaught of information they handled at their jobs each day. In 2010! When the total worldwide data created was 2 zettabytes, compared to 74 zettabytes today!

If the information overload feels like it’s getting worse, that’s because it is. And we’re not doing ourselves any favors by how we treat the value of staying busy.

We treat the state of being constantly busy as a virtue, as if it proves that we’re valuable or our lives have meaning. There is, I suspect, a good reason for this behavior beyond assuaging our own egos as to our worth: Constant downsizing and job loss through automation have proven to two entire generations now that if we’re not constantly doing work, we’re communicating that we can be and should be replaced.

Rest Makes Us More Productive

For centuries, people scoffed at the idea that rest could be productive on its own, let alone make workers more productive. The US’s current work ethic is largely an artifact of our earliest Puritan ancestors, who firmly believed in the rectifying power of constant labor. (The fact that a good portion of them died of starvation during their first two winters in New England may have had something to do with their obsession.) During the Industrial Revolution, “work houses” were created for people too poor to support themselves, on the grounds that they were poor only because they were indolent and a good 16 hours a day of picking tar out of old bits of rope in exchange for three bowls of gruel and a bed of straw would fix them.

The idea that hard work is a virtue and rest a vice is well ingrained into our culture. The more we study rest and work, however, the more it becomes clear that we have our morals exactly backwards.

Research indicates, for instance, that taking adequate rest periods allows us to get more done in a shorter time frame. For example, when Basecamp decided to move to a four-day workweek, the company found that its staff actually got more done in four weeks than they were getting done in five. Researchers who examine the brains of occupied and idle individuals via MRI and similar scanning tools have also discovered that the brain is “working” even when it’s not engaged in a task – and that, in fact, the brain’s “idle time” is essential to its ability to focus on tasks.

The longer I’m in control of my own schedule, the bigger a proponent I am of work time that allows each worker to manage the ebb and flow of their own energy.

I, for instance, tend to work in intense three- to five-hour bursts – and then spend the rest of the day rebooting. In those bursts, I get work done that the market seems to think I’d need eight to ten hours of a workday to do. At least, that’s the impression I get from all the recruiters who want me to apply for jobs that pay exactly what I’m making now, but that demand I be physically present for 40 hours a week instead of 10.

So far, so good. But “productivity” is a virtue generated by our social expectations, particularly in the US. It’s not necessarily a personal virtue – and when applied to personal work, “productivity” can be a real inspiration-killer.

Your personal work needs you to rest, too. Because:

Boredom is Good for Creativity

In a 2014 study published in Creativity Research Journal, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman tested the effects of boredom on a particular type of creativity known as “divergent thinking.” It’s the kind that helps you do things like, say, generate a bunch of new uses for an ordinary household item.

Mann and Cadman began by splitting research subjects into two groups. Both groups were asked to generate as many ideas as they could for using a pair of plastic cups. Before this task, however, one group was asked to copy numbers out of the phone book; the other was given no such mind-numbing activity.

The phone book copiers ended up generating significantly more uses for the cups than the control group, however. It was as if being a little bored first made the creative mind restless, so it jumped at the chance to do something creative like play with cup ideas.

Mann and Cadman then repeated the study, but with a twist. To see whether degree of boredom made a difference, they created a study with three groups. One group served as a control group. One group copied numbers out of the phone book, as before. The third group was assigned merely to read the phone book. Then, all three worked on finding creative uses for plastic cups.

Once again, boredom helped generate new ideas. And more boredom seemed to do more. The phone book readers came up with the most cup-related ideas, followed by the phone book copiers; both groups outperformed the control group.

You Deserve To Live

If nothing else, take this from someone who actually did nearly die four different times from overwork: You deserve to rest because you deserve to live.


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