Category Archives: Writing Tips

Not Writing

So does being a writer mean you do everything you can think of instead of writing because it’s just too hard? Like checking your email, looking at Facebook, going over your notes a tenth time, refilling your water bottle even though you’ve only had two swallows, or looking at Facebook again? Or perhaps even writing a blog post about not writing because you’d rather write that than write the thing you’re supposed to write?

Uggh. Welcome to my morning.

Magical Creativity

When I was in college, my writing professor was convinced that there’s no such thing as writer’s block. As a writer, I just didn’t think that was true. But I didn’t think it was the mystical, spiritual muse that others make it out to be, either. (Elizabeth Gilbert, for example. She’s a little too “out there” for me.) It had to be somewhere in between.

Recently I was listening to The TED Radio Hour—an episode called “The Source of Creativity.” One of the people Guy Raz talked to was a scientist who believes creativity is a neurological process, a process that suppresses the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the part that takes care of conscious self-monitoring, the part that’s afraid to be wrong, the part that inhibits your behavior and tries to prevent mistakes.

When your prefrontal cortex is active, you’re much less likely to be creative. I was thinking about what that means in my own life. And I was thinking about when I’m most creative. I realized it happens most when I’m doing muscle-memory-type tasks—walking in a familiar place, showering, driving—things my body just does on autopilot and my brain doesn’t really need to self-monitor. That’s when I come up with my best ideas.

“Artisitic creativity is magical, but it’s not magic.” —Charles Limb

Most writers will tell you that, to be a good writer, you need to just sit down and do it habitually. You need a schedule, a regular time to sit in the same place every day and just do it. Essentially, you’re creating another muscle memory process—another habit that frees up that prefrontal cortex from having to work so the rest of your brain can create great ideas. The results are magical, but the process—not so much.

I don’t know about you, but this significantly changes how I approach writing.



How to Write a Book Review

So You Want to Review Books- (1)Back in college, my writing professor would leave books in our mailboxes with notes that usually said something like “Review this book for Church Libraries.” More often than not, the books were horrible, and writing the reviews felt a lot like a writing major’s version of hazing. Especially since they didn’t have anything to do with our grades.

So I never thought I would actually seek out book reviews. Yet here I am with a blog that I started just so I could review books.

I’ve developed a basic template for writing reviews that’s based on what I learned in college, what I did when I made manuscript suggestions as an intern at Bethany House, and what works I, as a reader, want to know when I read a book review. Here are the basics:

  1. Take notes as you read. This isn’t really part of the template, but it’s an important step that I always regret skipping. Are there things that cause you to stop and re-read? Things you find confusing? Or endearing? What do you love about the book? How would you have done it differently if you were the writer? Or if you had been allowed to make suggestions to the author before it went to the presses? Are the memorable quotes or passages you want to draw attention to?
  2. Summarize the book in a few sentences. Introduce your reader to the main characters and plot or the thesis and background of the book. Sometimes I introduce the author and talk about whether I’ve read their work before. When appropriate, I explain how their life or experience qualifies them to write the book.
  3. Explain what you liked about the book and why. What worked? What made you turn the pages? (Personally, I think this is harder to pin down than what I didn’t like.)
  4. Explain what you didn’t like about the book and why. I always try to be gentle and give helpful feedback. If the writer actually reads your review (and it’s pretty likely), give something they can use to improve future writing.
  5. Compare the writing to other books and authors. This will help your readers identify it as something they should or shouldn’t read. This is an important part of reviewing a new or unknown author’s work.
  6. Make some general comments about the book. Overall, did you like it or dislike it? Is it something you’d recommend to others? Would you read other books by the same author?
  7. If appropriate, recommend the book for a specific audience. Is it a good choice for women? Moms of  young kids? History buffs? Readers of Ray Blackston*? Fans of Downton Abbey?
  8. Offer any necessary warnings. Are there any elements the reader should be warned about—controversial subjects, graphic scenes, sexuality, politics, language, theology issues?
  9. Make some personal comments about the book. Did it remind you of something that happened in your own life? Did it challenge you or give you a perspective you haven’t considered before? Why did you choose to review it?

Want some examples?
Tide and Tempest by Elizabeth Ludwig
Gypsy Duke by Felicia Mires
Ten Great Dates by Peter & Heather Larson and David & Claudia Arp
Unrivaled by Siri Mitchell

*Bonus book suggestion: Read Ray Blackston. He’s awesome.

This is the second post in a series on becoming a book reviewer. Check out my first post, So You Want to Review Books?, and stay tuned for new posts about my star system for book reviews and the challenges of reviewing books.

Writing Tip Wednesday #18: The E’s Have It

Eiffel Tower Kimberly VardemanHave you ever wondered how to spell fiancé? fiancée? I didn’t learn the difference until I got married. And what about blonde? Or blond? I had to research that one for this post—I had no idea.

It all boils down to the same thing—the words are French, and they have gender. If you know Spanish, it’s like the difference between loca and loco.

“Fiancé” and “blond” are the masculine forms of the words. “Fiancée” and “blonde” are the feminine forms. The masculine forms can be used to refer to males and females, and the feminine forms refer only to females.

In American English, as a noun, “blond” is used for males and “blonde” is used for females. As an adjective, “blond” is most common, though you can add the “e” and use it to describe females.

Now you know.

(And in case it’s bugging you—Chicago style would not put an apostrophe in “E’s” in my title. I added it for clarity.)

Photo credit: Kimberly Vardeman via Flikr

Writing Tip Wednesday #17: My Favorite Editing Trick

So I figure it’s about time I share my favorite editing trick. I picked it up in college, but I can’t remember where—perhaps in the sidebar of a text book I haven’t looked at in a few years, or maybe my professor shared it during a lecture in my editing seminar. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? What matters is that I promised you an editing trick and I should probably get to the point . .

When you get stuck with a piece’s structure or organization, you can’t quite figure out what information you need and what you don’t, or you need to find the holes in your writing, try deconstructing your document. Put a line break after each sentence (or paragraph, depending on what you’re struggling with), print it, and cut it into strips.

Editing Structure Duo

This frees you up to reorganize, cut text, and reorganize again until the cows come home. Or until you figure out what to do with your piece. I usually tape all the strips together and reorganize my document file accordingly.

It’s like magic. It always works for me. Maybe because it goes back to the basics and gets me away from the computer screen . . . Next time you’re stuck, try it!

Writing Tip Wednesday #16: everyday vs. every day

Clothes EditIt’s not the last Wednesday of the month, but I decided it was time for a new tip.

(Want to know what laundry has to do with writing? Nothing. BUT it is mentioned in one of my examples.)

It seems there’s a lot of confusion with everyday and every day. It’s one of those things people don’t think much about, and it’s easy to use the wrong one. After all, the only difference in the way they look is a space.

Every Day
Every day is a phrase that means “each day.” “Every” is an adjective that describes “day,” which is a noun. The phrase is usually used like an adverb, which means it modifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb.

Some examples:I wish I had the money to go to Starbucks every day.
Every day, I think about going to the gym. (I don’t always follow through.)

Everyday is an adjective that can mean daily or ordinary.

Some examples:
She hadn’t done laundry in a few weeks, so she wore her everyday clothes to church on Sunday.
For Tina, losing her keys is an everyday occurrence.

A Trick to Make It Easy
Replace the word or phrase with “each day.” If it makes sense, you should be using “every day.” If it doesn’t make sense, use “everyday.”

Proofreading Tips

This picture doesn’t have anything to do with proofreading. But it’s of a small “detail” lots of people wouldn’t notice. Plus I’m missing Yellowstone, and that’s where we found this pretty bird.

Because I finished a big proofreading project over the weekend, I thought I’d offer a few proofreading tips for this month’s Writing Tip Wednesday.

  1. Don’t put all your trust in the spell check. There are too many words that have multiple spellings. And sometimes autocorrect will insert the wrong word unnoticed.
  2. Don’t put any trust in the grammar check. It’s almost never right. If you get that squiggly green line, check out the suggestion for sure, but do your research before you accept it.
  3. Don’t just look for misspelled words and missing or misplaced punctuation. Pay attention to formatting, too—font, page numbers, orphans and widows . . . And if the document includes dates, times, names, or titles, double-check the spelling.
  4. Create a style sheet. Don’t know what that is? It’s a document that keeps track of the rules you’re using—word spellings, serial comma, how to format numbered lists, etc. In some cases, you’ll want to have a style sheet for every document. In other cases—like a business setting—you’ll want to create a style sheet to use for everything you print. It’ll keep everyone who does any writing or editing of your documents on the same page (no pun intended!). You certainly don’t want the editor taking out all the serial commas only to have the author put them all back in.
  5. Back up every time you find an error. This suggestion comes from The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style. Apparently studies have shown that most missed errors are near other errors that were caught. CWMS recommends backing up a few lines whenever you find an error.
  6. If you’re editing your own copy, don’t edit right after you wrote it. Take some time away from your work and do something else. The more time you can let it sit, the better, I think. Then when you come back, you’re seeing it with fresh eyes. You’re more likely to catch things.
  7. If it’s your own copy, have someone else look at it, too. When you’re close to a project, it’s hard to catch things. I can prove that—at work, I send out a weekly newsletter, and two weeks in a row I was under a time crunch and edited my own copy without having someone else look at it. Guess what happened? Two glaring mistakes two weeks in a row. Oops.
  8. If you’re able, read through the document more than once. Bonus points if you look at it once, walk away for awhile, and then look at it again. When I can, I scan for formatting, do a thorough proofread, and then do another quick proofread.

If you have tips of your own, feel free to leave them in a comment.

Writing Tip Wednesday: Comma Rules

I’ve gotten questions about commas and hesitated to post a writing tip about it because, quite frankly, I can’t explain the rules. For two years, I’ve been telling coworkers to add and subtract commas from their documents, and when they ask why, I usually say, “Um, well, I can’t explain why, but that’s how it is. Trust me.”

I’ll be the first to admit that is not a good answer.

But then I came across an article that made it all seem so much easier. Rather than re-write it here, I thought I’d just send you over to so you can read it for yourself. So go read this article on comma rules. Yes, right now. I’ll wait.

Helpful, wasn’t it?

If you take nothing else away from this post about commas, remember that commas should make it easier for your reader understand what you’ve written, not harder. (Oh, and you can’t just throw in a comma wherever you would stop to take a breath. I don’t know why so many English teachers taught that rule, but I wish they hadn’t.)

If you’re still reading and can appreciate comma humor, here ya go:

Bonus Writing Tip Wednesday: Affect vs. Effect

You get a bonus writing tip this month because I’ve been seeing this one A LOT lately and I’d like to set the record straight.

Affect vs. Effect

Affect is a verb.

Effect is a noun.

In case you’re struggling to remember your parts of speech, here are a few definitions to help you out:

Verb: a word that shows action or state of being

Noun: a person, place, thing, or idea

Here are a few examples:

The weather always affects the farmers’ crops.

A parent’s own upbringing often affects the way she raises her children.

The special effects in that movie were impressive.

The painting technique produced the desired effect in the living room.

Writing Tip Wednesday: When (not) to Use an Apostrophe

Okay guys, my writing tip is here early this month because I’ve been seeing abused apostrophes everywhere. It may actually drive me crazy.

Photo credit:

Pop Quiz: Which option is correct?
A) The Smiths live here.
B) The Smith’s live here.
C) The Smiths’ live here.
Answer: A) The Smiths live here.

What about this one?

A) Its’ time to go home.
B) It’s time to go home.
C) Its time to go home.
Answer: B) It’s time to go home.

Why, you ask?

Well, after doing a little research to make sure I have it straight myself, I have a few rules for you. But first, let me give a disclaimer: I use the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition. Some of these rules will be different if you use a different style guide.

If a word is possessive (showing ownership), you should use an apostrophe.

For example:
I read Jonathan’s book on the plane. (NOT I read Jonathans book on the plane.)

If it’s a contraction, you should use an apostrophe.

For example:
Jessica was disappointed Spencer couldn’t come. (Couldn’t is a contraction for could not. The apostrophe takes the place of the missing letters.)
Let’s pretend our work is done and go to the beach. (Let’s is a contraction for let us. Again, the apostrophe takes the place of the missing letters.)

If a word is plural and possessive, you should use an apostrophe and an s. If a word already ends in s, just use an apostrophe after the s that’s already there. (There are a few exceptions to this rule, but I won’t go into them here.)

For example:
She washed the children’s clothes.
She washed the kids’ clothes.

If a word is plural and NOT possessive, you should NOT use an apostrophe.

For example:
She asked the players for their autographs.
(NOT She asked the player’s for their autograph’s. Gross. Please don’t do that!)

The Smiths left early because their kids were getting grouchy. (NOT The Smith’s left early because their kids were getting grouchy.)

Let me pause here for a minute. I see the mistake in the example above more than any other apostrophe mistake. It drives me crazy and is, in fact, what prompted this post. Please, please, please don’t add an apostrophe to a last name unless it’s showing ownership.

This example shows ownership:
That dog is the Whites’. (The apostrophe goes after the s because we’re talking about more than one White. The s makes it plural so you know the dog belongs to the whole family. The apostrophe shows ownership.)

An example where a plural is needed and there’s no ownership:
She went to the cabin with the Andersons.

And a few really practical examples:
If you’re addressing a card to the entire Young family, you could write “To the Youngs.” No apostrophe.

If the card is from the entire Jones family, you could write “Love, the Joneses.” (Last names follow the same es rules as other words—if it already ends in an s, it needs an es to make it plural.)

And then there’s it’s and its . . .

This is an exception to the rules above.
If you mean it is, then it should have an apostrophe: I wonder if it’s time?
If you want to show ownership, don’t use an apostrophe: She gave the dog its dinner.

In the interest of not overwhelming you, I’ll stop here and post a few more apostrophe rules next week. So if you have questions about apostrophes, leave a comment and let me know. I’ll try to answer them next Wednesday!

For more information and a little history of the apostrophe, click here.