4 Tips and 4 Tools for Tightening Your Prose

by C.K. MacLeod

Tighten by hand only

Want to tighten your prose and make your writing easier to understand? Here are four ways and four tools to help you do that — all for free!

1. Omit needless phrases.

Authors sometimes use phrases such as "owing to the fact that" or "in order to" like condiments. Often, your meaning won't change if you trim these phrases. For example, “owing to the fact that” can become “because,” and "in order to" can become "to."

Refer to this list of offenders and some solutions for fixing them. Use the search and replace function in your word processing software to find these phrases in your writing.

2. Omit needless words.

Authors tend to pepper their prose with filler words. If you use Microsoft Word, you can run the NeedlessWords macro, and the macro will highlight potentially unnecessary words. In this macros for beginners post, Carla Douglas offers suggestions for what to do with those highlighted words.

Never used a macro before? This 20-Minute Macro Course will have you up and running with Macros in no time.

If macros scare you, or you don’t have Microsoft Word, try the Hemingway Editor. It’ll help you to hunt down adverbs, another kind of needless word.

3. Shorten your sentences.

Long sentences make sentences harder to read. The solution? Create two short sentences from the long one, when it makes sense to do so.
The Hemingway Editor will spot long sentences by identifying them as “hard to read” and “very hard to read.” It also provides you with readability statistics on your writing. You can buy the downloadable version of the Hemingway Editor for under $10 USD. Try the online version for free.

Very hard-to-read sentences are highlighted in red
Very hard-to-read sentences are highlighted in red

4. Use easy-to-understand words.

You can use the PlainLanguage macro to identify hard-to-understand words so you can swap them out with a reader-friendly word. The Hemingway Editor will also highlight words that are difficult for many readers to understand, and it will suggest a replacement!

There are many ways to make your writing more readable. A handful of tools will help you to accomplish this task quickly.

Adapted from a post from Beyond Paper Editing.

Image by Joshua Crauswell

DIY Design with Canva

Design is the lighting up on an ideaby C.K. MacLeod

If you’re engaged in social media tasks to promote your writing or editing business, you’ll know that visual design is essential to helping your message stand out.

Do you have a blog? You need a banner.

Just wrote a book? You need a cover.

Going to a conference? You need a business card.

So, what do you do when your currency is words, and making a message visual isn’t your thing? Hire a graphic designer? Sure. But if that’s not in your budget, try Canva.

Canva is a free, online graphic design tool that you can use to create book covers, business cards, social media banners, and yes, even digital holiday cards. I created this holiday card in under one minute:

“But I’m not a graphic designer!” you say.

The folks at Canva know that. Which is why Canva contains correctly-sized templates and predesigned drag-and-drop elements in an easy-to-use interface that nondesigners can use. Building a business card, for example, is as difficult as building a tower with wooden blocks with a two-year-old. If you’re still not convinced, Canva offers free step-by-step design tutorials that will take you through the design process.

Canva has a nice selection of free professional-looking, pre-designed elements, so you can try designing something without spending a cent. If you decide to spring for paid elements, they’re inexpensive, at only about a dollar each.
Still unsure? Why not take a page from the pros? Self-publishing author Joanna Penn announced on The Creative Penn Podcast (episode 245) that she used Canva to create a simple book cover for Destroyer of Worlds, a book she’s released on pre-order on iBooks.The cover will be placeholder until she has the final version professionally designed by her graphic designer.

The online world is a visual place. Canva ensures that word people can now join in on the fun.
Image by David Joyce

Most Popular Writing Tech Posts of 2015

Top 10by C.K. MacLeod

Here are the top 10 Posts on Tech Tools for Writers in 2015.

  1. Hemingway Editor: A Proofreading Tool for Writers
  2. Self-Editing Tools
  3. Retrieving a Back-Up File in Scrivener
  4. How to Create a Keyboard Shortcut for the Snipping Tool
  5. 20-Minute Macro Course
  6. Improve Your Writing with Macros
  7. A 5-Minute Guide to Evernote
  8. 5 Ways to Create an Em Dash
  9. Proofreading Tool: PerfectIt Pro
  10. Consistency Checker: A Free Proofreading Tool

Which tool will you try in 2016? Which tool would you like me to write about?

Stay posted for more exciting writing and editing tools in 2016.

Image by Sam Churchill.

The Fastest Way to Build an Online Home

Yurt

by C.K. MacLeod

Do you have an online home? You really should.

Recently, a managing editor contacted me to see if I was interested in doing some work for his publisher. The timing wasn’t great for me, but I didn’t want to leave the publisher high and dry. With the managing editor's permission I contacted my editing group and ask interested editors to contact me. I got seven email responses in the first hour.

When I make a referral, I want to know something about the person I’m referring, but I couldn’t find out anything about these editors other than what they told me in their email messages. They didn’t appear to have online homes.

I get it. Setting up a website and keeping up with social media is a lot of work. But may I suggest that you do one small thing? Set up an About.me page. I learned about this site through personal branding expert Sidneyeve Matrix.

About.me is the equivalent of a digital business card, or a mini one-page website. It’s free for a basic account, it’ll take you less than an hour to set up, and then you can link to it in your email signature. Here's my About.me page:

Corina' s About.me page
My About.me page

If you’re providing services, or you have something to sell, you don’t need to buy an online mansion. You can take up residence in a tiny online yurt.

Image by Prashant Ram

Print to Digital: Cleaning Up Your Word File

This week's post is by Carla Douglas from Beyond Paper Editing.

Adapted. Originally posted at Beyond Paper Editing in August 2014.

If you have a print document that you’d like to self-publish, you can turn it into a digital file and convert it to an ebook.

The first step is to get it into MS Word using OCR software. Note that MS Word is your best friend right now. Editors use Word for a few reasons, and efficient cleanup and editing are high on that list.

Here’s what the file I’m working with looks like as a pdf (produced on a Macintosh Classic and dot matrix printer):

The manuscript has been marked up with pencil, and these marks are picked up by the OCR software, sometimes in unexpected ways. Here’s what the Word file looks like:

Two Kinds of Cleanup

There’s junk in the file—the stuff you can see, and the stuff you can’t. Sometimes, what’s hidden behind the scene in Word is the cause of the junk you can see—things like garbled text and wonky formatting. Also, the pencil marks that haven’t been converted to text remain in the document as pictures, and will have to be deleted. Some random characters appear, too, and the text is all boldface. These are just a few of the things you can see.

To clean up this file, will a spritz of vinegar and water do, or will you need industrial-strength degreaser? The answer depends on what you plan to do with the file next. If you’re going to revise or edit the text, clean it up enough to continue working on it, and save the heavy-duty cleanup for later.

For Initial Cleanup

The story I’m working with here is just over 4,000 words, and it won’t be converted to an ebook any time soon. I’m going to do an initial cleanup using FileCleaner from Jack Lyon’s Editorium. (Wiley Publishing  has a free Word add-in with many similar features.)

FileCleaner is about US$30, but there’s a generous 45-day free trial available. It runs as a Word plug-in. Follow the directions on the site to download and install it. It will appear on the Add-ins pane in your Word ribbon. Here’s what it will do (you can select/unselect features):

Running FileCleaner cleaned up most of the junk in my story file—it’s now in a format I can continue to edit without too many distractions. Here’s what it looks like post-FileCleaner:

As you can see, FileCleaner didn’t catch the text that had been marked up with pencil. After trying a few ways to clean this up—including selecting the text and applying Normal style to it—I ended up having to repair it manually by deleting the picture and re-keying the sentence that’s squished together. Because my document is short, this wasn’t a problem, but in a longer document it could present a significant inconvenience. Here’s a last look at the cleaned-up text:

Other Cleanup Tips

At times, Word can be frustrating to work in—with extra page breaks and hidden formatting, it will do things you don’t want it to. For now, I’ve cleaned my file up well enough to do further editing.

If your Word document is really acting up, there are a few of things to try. I’ve found that the best place to start is by using the show/hide feature on the Word ribbon.  How to Find the Hidden Formatting That Will Mess Up Your Ebook, shows you how.

Image by atomicjeep

6 Tips for Dictating Your Writing

Blue Snowball mic

by C.K. MacLeod

Updated.

Dictation has become increasingly popular with writers who want to improve their writing productivity. As a writer and editor, I struggle with achy wrists from too much typing, tapping, and mousing. I know I'm not alone. To save my wrists, I've decided to take dictation for a spin. Here a few tips for using dictation, if you decide to give it a try:

Try it with short-form writing first.

Email is a great way to begin. Email a trusted friend who will forgive you for any fumbling and inexplicable wordiness. When I first dictated this article, it was a beast of a thing. Before I took out my editing hatchet, that is.

Work from an outline.

Take three minutes to plan what you want to say. A short, point-form list should do the trick. If you understand where you're going, you're less likely to wander into a verbal thicket.

Remember to speak out punctuation.

Say “comma,” or “period” when you want to insert punctuation. To start a new paragraph, say “new line.” It feels awkward to speak out punctuation, but it gets easier with time.

Think before you speak.

Your mom was right. Thinking before you speak is not only wise, but it makes for more accurate voice dictation. Monica Leonelle, author of Dictate Your Book: How to Write Your Book Faster, Better, and Smarter, recommends pausing while dictating, and then speaking in phrases instead of word by word. For some reason, speak recognition engines record phrases more accurately than individual words. So take time to gather your thoughts. With voice diction, awkward pauses are okay!

Get ready to edit.

If your dictation is wordy or disorganized, you will spend more time than usual editing your writing. Because speaking and keyboarding involve different neural pathways, and may engage different areas of the brain, your writing and speaking styles may differ.

When I first learned to write, I needed to conserve my words—in other words, to not write like I speak. Now, in learning dictation, I need to learn to speak more like I write!

Use editing tools.

Dictation may help you get more words on the page, but you’ll need some objectivity to help you decide which words should stay there. Revision and proofreading tools can show you where your writing needs pruning.

Final Thoughts

I've found that dictation works best as a first-draft exercise for getting first thoughts on a page. Once those thoughts are there, I can use my keyboard to make them intelligible. So, add dictation to your repertoire of tools, but don’t feel it has to replace the keyboard.

There are lots of options for trying dictation. I've written about Windows Speech Recognition  and Google's Voice Typing on this blog. Keep checking back for more reports on my adventures with dictation.

Image by Vincent Diamente

How to Turn Your Print Book into a Digital File

My grandmother's typewriter: an Underwood Noiseless Portable
My grandmother's typewriter: an Underwood Noiseless Portable

by Carla Douglas
@CarlaJDouglas

Adapted. Originally posted at Beyond Paper Editing in August 2014.

OCR—not your grandmother’s typewriter!

You can turn your essays, stories and other documents—stuff you might have lying around in a drawer—into ebooks. You also may have unpublished or previously published books, now out of print, that you want to self-publish as ebooks (be certain you own the rights).

You can do this yourself, but first you need to get this material into a digital format. One way is to re-key the text manually (not really an option if you have a book-length work) or you can use optical character recognition (OCR) software, which converts a scanned document into a digital file.

There are many OCR programs available, ranging in price from free to fairly costly. I chose OCRonline to experiment with. It’s web-based, and your first 5 page conversions are free. After that, they’re 4 cents per page. Simply open an account and log in, then follow the instructions.

1. Scan your document and save it as a pdf. The photo at the top of the page? That’s my grandmother’s typewriter. She was a prolific correspondent, and I’m currently digitizing a collection of her letters. Here’s a snippet of one, dated March 13th, 1944:

Tip: Be sure to scan all pages into a single document, or you’ll be stuck (as I was) with multiple separate files that have to be compiled later.

2. Upload your scanned file.  Browse >> Upload

3. Convert your scanned file to MS Word .doc (no .docx option) >>Process


4. Retrieve your converted file at the link provided.
Here’s what my converted snippet looks like:

That’s it! As you can see, the Word file is littered with debris and some ugly bits, but you’re well on your way to having an editable, searchable file, suitable for formatting as an ebook. So go ahead—open your drawer...

Next: File cleanup.

Photo by Carla Douglas

Overcoming Procrastination with 3 Old-Tech Tools

Coloured felt pens

by C.K. MacLeod

Updated. Orginally posted August 7, 2012 at Beyond Paper Editing.

Will you do almost anything to avoid writing? Take heart. Most writers face this struggle at one time or another. Many of them work at home with abundant distractions. Drab everyday tasks begin to look inviting when there is a blank page to face—there is always a dish to wash, a floor to sweep, or a social media site to get lost in.

Why Do Writers Procrastinate?

Why do procrastination and writing often show up together? I think that every writer—novices and professionals alike—know that writing is hard work. Beginning means that you’re committing to a process that will occupy a reasonable chunk of time and a great deal of effort and discipline. Yet, distracting yourself with seemingly purposeful tasks (yes, that dishwasher does need emptying at some point), only delays the inevitable. So what’s a writer to do?

Make Procrastination Work for You

SARK, author of Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper suggests creating space for procrastination in the writing process. Rather than ignore the need to procrastinate (and then feel guilty by falling prey to it), writers need to find a way a way to make procrastination work for them.

Her tool, humorously named the Micromovement Wheel of Delight is none other than a hand drawn chart—old tech at its best. It enables writers to identify and capture those tasks that will help them ramp up to writing. Here’s what my version of the chart looks like:

SARK's micromovement wheel
SARK's micromovement wheel

Here's how it works:

  1. Identify your writing project. Record it in the middle of the wheel (see the image above).
  2. List five or six tasks, or “micromovements” that relate to your writing project between the spokes of the wheel. This is key. Tasks like taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn, or texting a friend do not relate to your writing project. Sharpening a pencil or doing a quick Google search on the writing topic do. Each task must be on topic and should take no more than five minutes.
  3. Pick any task and do it. Micromovements are small. Anyone can commit to a two-minute task. Continue until all the tasks are done. You are now closer to completing the writing project. If you have completed a wheel but you haven’t finished the writing project, create another wheel with six more tasks to complete.

Make it Manageable

SARK’s approach to dealing with procrastination acknowledges the psychology of the writer. Writing is a monumental task, yet every monumental task can be broken down into tiny movements. Writers can’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment as they knock off those smaller tasks—all of which are designed to chip away at the bigger task. By thinking in terms of micromovements, you create, well, movement. Movement in the right direction.

You can use SARK’s micromovement wheel for nearly any task that seems too big. If you learn to think in micromovements, you’ll have a valuable tool for conquering procrastination in all areas of life.

So what are the other two old-tech tools? A print copy of Juicy Pens and Thirsty Paper for sumptuous inspiration. And coloured felt pens, of course! Grab those pens and go draw that wheel!

Image by Steven Lilley

Tips and Tools for Staying on Track with Your Writing

by C.K. MacLeod

The emperor has no clothes

Updated. Originally posted at Beyond Paper Editing.

Writers have a lot to think about: writing, revising, editing, formatting, marketing, platform building, and the list goes on. In all this flurry of activity, it's too easy to remember the task that is most important: writing!

It's becoming more difficult to focus on writing with everything an author has to juggle. Like the emperor with no clothes, writers are in danger of having no books! Here are some tips for staying on track with your writing.

1. Use old tech.

To keep him from being distracted by social media tasks, Bryan Cohen, author of Writer on the Side: How to Write Your Book Around Your 9 to 5 Job uses "old technology" with no Internet connectivity while writing.

He uses an Alphasmart Neo 2—an intelligent keyboard with a tiny e-ink-like screen that only allows for writing. It's less than two pounds, powered by triple-A batteries for hours of power, and can be easily toted into distraction-free dead zones. I use a similar intelligent keyboard: the QuickPad Pro.

Similarly, George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones, has been ribbed for using a "writing computer"— an ancient DOS machine from the 80s loaded with WordStar 4.0. Have you seen the page count for the Game of Thrones series? Who's laughing now?

2. Set limits for online time.

If using old tech is a bit too hardcore for you, consider social media timing tools to help you prevent social media time suck. Rescue Time will keep track of how you spend your time online and furnish you with a data report of your online activities, if you're brave enough to go there. The free browser plug-in Stay Focusd can set time limits for social media or block websites when it's time to get to work.

3. Do your two most important tasks first.

As a writer, one of your two most important daily tasks is writing, right? Tim Ferriss, the author of the Four-Hour Work Week, does his two most important tasks before 11:00 a.m. each day. These tasks do not include checking email.

In fact, Ferriss does his to best to avoid checking and responding to email more than twice a day. Instead, he has an autoresponse message for his email account, indicating when he'll be checking mail, so people know that his response won't be instantaneous. He then batch processes his emails offline using Boomerang for Gmail and in the past, The Email Game. These tools can help you organize email messages by priority and set time limits for processing email.

4. Pare things down.

To determine what will work for book promotion, J.F. Penn, author of the Arkane Thriller series, has tried a wide variety of social media platforms. She often works 11-hour days to fulfil her "authorpreneur" tasks. To carve out more time for writing, Penn has decided to let some of her social media platforms go, and has chosen, instead, to focus on the ones that bring her joy—her blog, The Creative Penn, her podcast, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. This is still a tall order for most of us, but the lesson here is that you can't do it all—even if you've committed to 11-hour days.

5. Be strategic.

If you're not sure how to pare down your social media engagement, Frances Caballo, author of Avoid Social Media Time Suck, suggests focusing on platforms where your readership hangs out. "You want to be where your readers are," she says in an interview with J. F. Penn of the Creative Penn podcast. To find out where readers hang out, see Frances' picks at the Creative Penn website.

You can be strategic about when you use social media sites, as well. For example, according to Pam Dyer, a top-50 social media power influencer at Forbes, Twitter users are more likely to see tweets on weekends between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m., so why not schedule important tweets during these times? Dyer lists popular social media sites with suggested times for using them at the Social Media Today blog.

6. Outsource.

If you've pared things down, become more more strategic, and find you still don't have the time you need to write, take a page from Joel Friedlander's book. Friedlander is the author of the popular self-publishing blog, The Book Designer, and he's everywhere. How does he do it?

Friedlander has hired a virtual assistant, or VA, to help him with time-consuming social media tasks, like organizing guest posts and formatting and posting blog posts. J.F. Penn and Pat Flynn have also hired VAs, and Jim Kukral and Bryan Cohen, hosts of the Sell More Books podcast, often make use of Fiverr for photo editing or ebook cover tweaking. Tim Ferris estimates that he saves 10 hours a week on minutia by using Task Rabbit to outsource tasks.

The Indie ethic is a DIY ethic. But DIY doesn't mean DIA—doing it all.

7. Be accountable.

How do you know if you have enough time to write? One of the best ways to find out is to keep track of your daily writing progress. Women's fiction author Jamie Raintree has designed a lovely Excel spreadsheet that can help you keep track of your daily word count. It's free when you subscribe to her email newsletter.

Scrivener users can use Project Targets to set daily word count goals:

Scrivener Project Targets

Well known traditionally published authors produce on average between 250 and 5,000 words a day, and high achieving self-publishing author J.F. Penn will clock in at 2,500 words in a two-hour window of writing. Set your own daily or weekly word-count goals, and if you don't achieve your goals, it might be time to try some of the steps described above.

There's a prevailing theme here, isn't there? Social media, email, and all things Internet, appear to be some of the main barriers to writing. I've managed to priortize my writing, at least for today. But it's after 11:00 and my email beckons...

Image by 세라 박.

How to Write a Quality Book Fast

Idea to Ebook: How to Write a Quality Book Fast

by C.K. MacLeod

Updated. Originally posted at Beyond Paper Editing.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? If so, you've tasked yourself to write a book in four weeks. How will you do it?

Writing a book can happen fairly quickly, particularly if you know how to create an efficient writing and publishing workflow. I wrote the first draft of the book on the left in about 10 hours and completed the rest of the process in nine weeks. Here's how:

1. Have a System 

To get a book to publication quickly, it helps to know the essential steps in the idea-to-ebook process. As both an author and editor, I’ve discovered a few efficiencies that can save time in the writing and publishing process.

Here are the steps as I follow them:

  • Collaborate (optional)
  • Brainstorm
  • Research
  • Organize
  • Draft
  • Revise
  • Edit
  • Add Images (optional)
  • Clean Up
  • Format
  • Proofread
  • Create a Cover
  • Publish

You don't always have to follow these steps in order, but if your steps are orderly and logical, it'll help you to be more efficient.

2. Use Efficiency Tools

You'll be more efficient at writing books if you use the right tools for the job. Scrivener, for example, is a wonderful drafting tool that can help you organize a potentially unwieldy book.

Trust me, it's never good news to discover at the editing stage that your book's structure isn't working. If you use an organization tool like Scrivener early in the process, you can sort out any structural issues at the beginning, long before the editing stage (where they can become costly). Scrivener can benefit writers in other ways, too. (See Idea to Ebook: How to Write a Quality Book Fast for more details).

It's also worth noting that Microsoft Word is currently the best tool for the editing stage of your publishing process (I'm hoping that the creators of Scrivener will remedy that). You may not agree with me, but in Idea to Ebook: How to Write a Quality Book Fast, I think I make a pretty good case for why you might want to have Word in your writer's toolkit.

I also recommend over 30 free and inexpensive tools that writers can use to create quality books efficiently.

A Caveat

It’s one thing to publish quickly, and quite another to publish well. Quality matters, and it’s important that you don’t sacrifice quality for speed. Your readers won’t care how long it took you to produce your book—but they will care whether your book is good.

I believe that creating a quality book fast is within every author’s reach. Your “fast” might not be my “fast,” but there are ways to create better books faster.

Want to know more about how to create a quality book efficiently? Curious about how Scrivener and other tools can help you do that? Idea to Ebook: How to Write a Quality Book Fast is a quick read, and you'll find it on Amazon for $0.99 during NaNoWriMo.