How to Balance How You Talk and How You Write

Stop for a moment. Listen to some conversation around you. Does it sound at all like how you write?

The odds are, it probably doesn’t. 

This is totally normal. But if you want to be a good storyteller, then you have to find a happy medium between what you say and what you pen. And there are four big rules for doing this.

1. Get your thoughts out of your mouth.

This might mean that you use Google’s voice typing feature or that you use the voice recorder on your smartphone to record what you say in a conversation. But getting this initial record provides a good outline of your key ideas where you aren’t worried about technicalities. Go back and pull verbatim into a draft knowing with confidence that what you pull is going to sound conversational overall. Remember, your first instinct about how to say something often will be right, even if you adjust a little afterward for clarity, redundancy and formatting. 

2. Decide which rules are nonsense. 

Ending sentences with prepositions? Starting one with a conjunction? Paragraphs having 3 to 5 sentences?

All of these are elements you could be stringent about. But part of the reason oral language sounds different is because we ditch these stipulations in practice. So even if you know what the rules are, pick a select few that you consciously can do away with. Ask yourself if the text as constructed flows. Resist the urge to “fix” it or rephrase just to follow the rule. The rules you accept or loosen will have a direct influence on your personal writing voice.

3. Expose yourself to less formal writings.

Diaries, social media posts, blogs and even to do lists usually don’t go through strict editing. They might not be intended to do anything but help a person remember a moment in time or feeling they were having. Reading these gives you repeated exposure to more honest and individual ways of verbalizing life and concepts. That exposure normalizes the idea that effective writing can take many different forms and doesn’t have to follow a script. It gets you comfortable with the notion that your writing can be all its own.

4. Keep it simple.

Writers often can get bogged down in details and their own love of writing. As a result, they write too much and extend their ideas far more than they would when having a two-way conversation. Imagine that someone else is waiting to comment and cut the fluff that disrespects their time and right to respond. 

Writing conversationally requires you to think less of technicalities and more about the flow and comprehension of the text. Simplicity, starting with a verbalized form of what you want to say, setting your own ground rules and exposing yourself to many forms of informal content can help you find the happy medium you’re looking for.

5 Ways to Pace Yourself as a Writer

Pacing yourself is critical as a writer. It helps you meet deadlines, look professional and crank out a maximum number of projects that can produce income in a healthy way without burning out. But how exactly are you supposed to do it?

1. Word count

This is probably the most common way writers pace themselves. You take a target number of words, such as 100,000, and then simply divide that by the number of days you have available to write. That gives you the minimum number of words to write per work day. You can write more than the minimum if you like, but not less.

Pros: 

  • provides very consistent results if you meet the minimum word count
  • target does not change, which provides mental and logistical predictability

Cons:

  • does not accommodate variations in other responsibilities, mood or wellbeing
  • can shift the focus from quality to quantity

2. Goal post

A goal post is the end of a section in whatever you are writing. It could be a paragraph, page or chapter. For example, you might tell yourself you will write until you have three paragraphs or one chapter.

Pros: 

  • easy to customize based on overall personal preference, writing habits or day-by-day needs
  • keeps you looking forward without locking you into uniformity or monotony
  • offers clear points for self-reward or review
  • compatible with the idea of breaking goals down into smaller, more achievable steps that are mentally easier to process

Cons: 

  • results might not be consistent from day to day
  • making a habit of using goals that are too small (not challenging yourself enough) might result in missing a larger deadline or prevent the realization of what you actually could produce

3. Time

With this method, you set a given amount of time to write, such as 30 minutes. You stop writing when that time is up, regardless of where you are at in terms of content or word count.

Pros:

  • target does not change, which provides mental and logistical predictability
  • easy to schedule

Cons:

  • does not accommodate variations in other responsibilities, mood or wellbeing
  • can shift the focus from quality to quantity
  • time spent is not necessarily productive time if you are unclear with your ideas or have distractions
  • can be forced to stop even in a state of flow
  • limits word count to whatever you can produce in the allowed time, so you might have to extend your deadline out even if the project is clearly mentally defined

4. Team standard

The team standard looks at what other writers are expected to do for projects similar to yours. For instance, if an editor at Publication A generally has writers producing one article per week, then you hold yourself to writing one article per week, as well.

Pros: 

  • can inspire you to write more than you otherwise might without others
  • expectations are clear
  • results are very predictable

Cons:

  • the team standard might limit what you can produce
  • does not accommodate your individual circumstances, which can be stressful
  • can put too much focus on what others are doing and make the writing about competition rather than quality

5. Emotional and physical wellness

Here, you simply write as much as you are able given how you feel. If you have energy and great ideas, then you could write all day long. If you’re slumping, then you give yourself permission to throw in the towel and come back to the project when you actually feel like writing.

Pros:

  • you always do your writing when you feel mentally and physically ready to work, which can have a positive influence on quality and how much you enjoy the writing
  • allows good flexibility and self-awareness

Cons:

  • results can be all over the map and make it difficult to determine when you’ll finish
  • no real goals defined from day to day

All of these pacing methods have something positive to offer, and all of them–even the last–is measurable according to the SMART goals concept (e.g., how many of your writing sessions felt physically good). but as you can see from the list, none of them are the “golden ticket”. They all have pain points. You also might find that one method works better under certain circumstances than another. It’s also possible to use more than one at a time. For example, I generally lean on time for my personal writing, but for my professional writing, I have to consider contractual minimums and word counts required by the client.

What matters most is just that you have some way of defining success with your writing, whether that means a certain number of words or just enjoying the session. If you are clear about what success means, then you can communicate your needs and expectations to others to smooth out hurdles that could interfere with the writing process. Try to choose one or more pacing methods that offer a sense of balance for you. Once you find that sweet spot, don’t worry about what works for anybody else. Just write.

Why “Be Patient” Is Bad Advice for a Writer

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One of the quirks of being a writer is that you often have to wait weeks or even months to get a response back from editors. This isn’t all their fault. Many of them are swamped with hundreds or even thousands of submissions a month, and they have other responsibilities other than combing through queries.

Because of this situation, though, writers almost always are told they need to be patient. Cast your line from the pole and then sit and see what happens. Good things, the saying goes, come to those who wait.

Waiting as a writer is inevitable. But you don’t have to be patient, per se. What you do need to do is find a way to make the wait seem smaller and more manageable. And by far the easiest way to do that is to just keep writing. Put another way, working on more projects provides a healthy distraction that makes time seem to pass far more quickly. What’s more, the more you write, the more paths for success you carve out for yourself. Every article or book, every email–it’s all potential for long-term connection and, subsequently, income.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you just write about whatever pops into your head. You need to do your homework and consider what’s popular and relevant, or there’s not going to be much interest no matter how beautiful the prose is. You absolutely write pieces that you’re both passionate about and that have some market shimmer. And one well-researched, empathetic, convincing piece is always worth more than a dozen fluff pieces–you can’t ignore quality in the name of productivity.

But broadly speaking, there’s no need to sit around and waste time. If you have many irons in the fire, query response windows will pass without almost any concern. And the big benefit there is, less stress. Giving yourself something to do, having new goals all the time, keeps you optimistic and prevents you from ruminating on “what ifs”.

So don’t be patient. Instead, act as if you already have the green light to proceed, that you must proceed, because you do, and success in this industry absolutely depends on persistence. Submit. Then find a new topic and get back to work.

Why I Hate Pay-to-Read Websites

I bet you’ve done it. Click on a link to a site like The New York Times or Medium, only to have it tell you that you need to buy a subscription to keep reading, or that you’re out of free articles for the month.

Lamest. Move. Ever.

I’m not pretending that these organizations don’t need to make money. They do. They can’t pay their writers and other staff otherwise, and I believe heavily in fair pay for everything involved in bringing stories to readers.

The trouble is, whether these organizations like it or not, pay-to-read means that it becomes significantly harder for people who are in lower income groups to participate and understand what the publications are covering.

Libraries are a vital combatant in this fight for equality, providing access to patrons, but this situation still can create real difficulties for people of all ages who want reliable information necessary to make informed choices. Especially now considering COVID-19, traditional workarounds through library access might no longer be as accessible for those who can’t afford their own computer or mobile device.

And while a person might be able to afford $2 or $3 a month for a membership, they might not be able to cover the cost of the device and Internet access necessary to use that membership. Remember, too, even $2 or $3 over a dozen or so sites–which you’d want for more variety and objective research/learning–can make someone in poverty or who is living paycheck to paycheck look hard at their budget. It’s significant money to them.

Mobile workers who have to move through the day as part of their work also need a reliable way to access important news reports, journal articles and other information. This is especially true when some of those publications, such as Forbes, have such an industry reputation that they’re held up as examples of reliability for journalistic standards and acceptable referencing. In some instances, subscription requirements might mean that an individual has to use less desirable pieces in their source list or can’t quote an original source, which can make their work appear to be less thorough or accurate. And if you are trying to freelance or start your career, trustworthy sources is one of the only things that gets an editor to take you seriously.

One other consideration for writers and contributors is that, if a user encounters a paywall they don’t want or can’t deal with, that user isn’t going to see the writer’s content. They’re just going to click away. So it’s potentially harder to get their voice out there, build a reputation and gain a loyal following that presents new opportunities, especially when real growth happens when readers start backlinking to and sharing the existing work. It inevitably works against writers who are paid per view, as well.

So what are publications supposed to do? They can’t just expect everyone to work for free. A better balance might be found in donation-based operations, such as support organizations like National Public Radio. General donations could come from users, but also from independent non-profit organizations or investors in industries related to the publication. The publications simply would need to make their affiliations clear in public disclosure statements or tax forms. Publications also could look for support such as specific grants. Users also could cover the cost of someone else’s subscription as a randomized gift, with those in need applying to receive those gifts and matched based on wait list time or consideration of need in specific demographics/communities.

If publications don’t want to do donations, then they potentially could find some funding by getting more stringent about what they publish and how much. Investing in systems that could automate certain steps also could allow companies to trim costs and let workers focus more on the creative side of the content, no reduction in hours or pay required. Developing partnerships/syndications is yet another option.

Of course, all this fundraising takes time and resources, too. Organizations have to find ways to convince all users to do their part if they can, rather than to assume other users will pick up the slack. But publications that take this approach to get rid of paywalls stand to broaden their readership a significant degree. More importantly, having access to information–all information–is part of what helps people make meaningful contributions to their communities and the world. That’s worth finding creative means of support.

 

How Writing Can Heal and Change You

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Most writers say that writing helps them manage anxiety, practice gratitude or thankfulness, and express themselves in a way they otherwise wouldn’t be able or know how to do. But in an article for Psyche, Uddipana Goswami explores that writing goes well beyond this foundational self-expression. It genuinely can help you make sense of what happened to you, good or bad, and move forward.

This doesn’t mean that writing is any substitute for a good therapist. But it can be therapeutic in a deeper way than perhaps we have admitted. As Goswami notes, it can allow you to acquire important life skills, accept specific feelings or hurts as part of you and help you seek solidarity with others to break out of isolation. It allows you to distance yourself from it all so you can analyze, plan and take action more objectively. And these are all goals you’ll find associated with a good mental health session.

Put another way, writing isn’t just about getting your thoughts or perspectives out. It’s about getting to a point of understanding about yourself and the world, of truly growing, metamorphizing and coming to a different way of behaving and thinking. It’s about figuring out not just who you really are, but what you’re capable of or meant to do. Readers certainly can come along on this journey with you, and their reactions to your writing can be incredibly influential, but others are not the primary beneficiary. YOU are.

So just pause for a second.

When’s the last time you wrote something not for your readers, not for legacy, not just for the fun of it or feeling of obligation the craft? When is the last time you wrote not to vent in the moment, but to change and understand?

If you’ve never done it, make today the day. The idea that healing and becoming better are at the end of a pen is a beautiful reason to get started.

3 Things to Never Say to a Writer

I’ve been writing professionally now for more than 16 years. So trust me when I say you do need to hear some constructive criticism if you want to improve and be successful in this craft.

The key word, though, is constructive. If you want people to take you seriously, then you need to set them straight when specific hurtful things come out of their mouths. And if you want to support authors, journalists, etc., then you need to know what to refrain from saying and why those things are so offensive.

1. “Yeah, but what’s your real job?”

This comment is the #1 thing to never say to a writer for a reason. It implies a host of nastiness, including that writing cannot bring in a living wage, that writing requires less work than other types of jobs simply because it’s creative and thus shouldn’t be treated seriously, and that there’s no place for writers among “real” professionals.

The reality is, many people don’t make tons of money writing. And that’s because, quite frankly, either they aren’t good enough to or just don’t have the business savvy or situational support to approach the job in a lucrative way. Even if they don’t make 6+ digits a year, as many people in other positions (e.g., teacher, cashier, home health aide) can testify, that doesn’t mean they aren’t putting in full time hours trying to make it all work, or that they’re not spending real time agonizing over how to improve and connect with the right people. Income by itself doesn’t mean people aren’t working.

But today’s writing situation also isn’t what Grandma had. We can tap affiliate marketing on blogs and websites. We can use third party sites to find and connect with clients all over the world. Businesses need excellent copywriters for technical documents, marketing, social media posts and much, much more.

So please. Look at my time tracked, hours billed and paychecks cashed. Then you can tell me I don’t have a real job. And while you’re at it, you can take note of every news article you read, every business letter you hold, every Kindle book you read, and for that matter, every scripted movie you watch as you down Cheetos on your couch. Because none of those writers have real jobs either, apparently, right?

2. Self-publishing isn’t real publishing/you’re not a writer if you self-publish.

Let’s highlight some statistics on self-publishing, shall we?

  • In 2016, self-publishing represented 300 million units and $1.25 billion in sales out of the entire $6 billion U.S. publishing industry.
  • Digital self-publishing accounted for more than 30 percent of American sales in 2014, just 5 years after mainstream digital publishing became widely accessible.
  • A typical traditionally published, unagented writer earns just 7.5 percent of their book’s cover price. Self-published authors earn between 70 and 96 percent, depending on whether they sell on their own websites or use platforms like Apple Books and Amazon.
  • Experts expect the global book printing market to be worth about $49 billion by 2024, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 1% during 2018-2024, Self-publishing is the fastest-growing segment within this market–its CAGR stands at roughly 17%.

So not only do self-published authors represent a big chunk of the overall industry, they also earn more than traditional authors and are a driving force behind the growth for the entire publishing world. These figures demonstrate that the idea that writers must go through a traditional publisher to be successful is woefully outdated. Although not everyone who puts out a self-published title will get good sales, serious writers no longer have to depend on traditional publishing houses to connect with readers. This is fantastic news, as overwhelmed, traditional publishing houses have been incredibly exclusive, preventing many great writers from getting into the market and allowing previous sale trends to determine which writers to work with.

3. You’re only a writer if you’re selling books.

See point 1 above. But that aside, many revered authors sold just a handful of their manuscripts, if any at all. Many were discovered or became famous only after they died. Among them include Emily Dickinson, John Kennedy Toole and William Faulkner. Other authors, like Anna Sewell, wrote just one book. Still others, such as Franz Kafka, kept their writing private as they made a living from other jobs.

And the heart of the thing is this: Most writers, like Herman Melville, admittedly do want some fame and financial security. That’s the dream. But ultimately, we write not to sell, but because the story demands that we put pen to paper (or these days, fingertips to keyboard). This is what makes one a genuine writer–an insatiable drive simply to deliver the tale, to bring readers to another world while at the same time somehow connecting with them and conveying a part of who we are. We feel at home in that task and obligated to it. To deny that someone has that sense of accountability to the job, solely because they cannot quantify it according to a biased norm, is ridiculous.

Writers deal with quite a bit. We learn how to say “Meh” to rejection letters, write with kids demanding snacks or screen codes or cuddles, and spend countless hours debating single sentences. Goodness knows we have our share of Internet trolls and broken editorial links/emails, too.

So non-writers, cut us some slack. Think before you talk. And writers, be proud. You have a right to stand up for yourself. Burn the arguments above into your memory and regurgitate them. Tell people how it is. Because none of us deserve to be told, either implicitly or explicitly, that we are less than anyone else.

5 Unique Ways to Know You’re a Good Writer

 

 

Writers always want to know if we’re any good. And part of the dilemma is that, even as we know the publishing industry has its biases and is profits-oriented, we also assume that good writing naturally demands attention/publication, and that success translates into paychecks and big followings. So it’s difficult to know whether the system is the issue or we are. And on top of that, we know there’s not necessarily any one single point where anybody can label us as “good”. So we do not know how much potential we have or how much we have left to grow.

If you’re feeling a little rudderless against all this, ask if the following points apply to you. If they do, take courage, because you’re probably doing just fine.

1. You have multiple drafts of everything, everywhere. 

Good writers recognize that their first drafts usually suck. But they are willing to work at those drafts over and over again to get it right. They don’t give up on the concepts just because they run into snags. So don’t worry if final.doc, revisedfinal.doc, seriouslyfinal.doc has become your life. As long as you know where the most recent draft is, you’re good.

Related to this, editing is usually fun for good writers. They know it can be tedious, but they take enjoyment in tweaking to get it right, and they’re serious enough to understand that changes for pacing, plot hole corrections, grammar/syntax and similar elements all matter. You’re a good writer if eliminating errors on the page excites you and leaves you feeling like King Kong.

2. Others share or comment on your work.

Good writing will spur readers to some feeling or action. So if people are backlinking, leaving notes or emailing you about their thoughts, you’ve done your job. Do not worry so much about the number of people doing this, because visibility will increase over time. Focus instead on the genuine nature of the messages, since it’s that honest response that indicates you really connected with the reader. In the same way, if people are making recommendations for you or making requests for additional work, that means they have faith that you can produce more excellent copy.

Additionally, if you’re a newbie sitting in writing groups, it’s a good sign when people call out areas to work on with real suggestions and solutions. This suggests that, even though they can see the flaws that still might be present in your drafts, the writing is totally workable. They can see what you’re trying to accomplish and want to give you a more legitimate path toward that goal, so they give feedback in a larger context, rather than just pointing out how they liked single point or sentence x, y or z to be polite.

3. You can read your old work with surprise.

Most writers treat their works like their children–they’re all precious. But when you’ve written a draft months, years or even decades ago and come back to it, you’re likely not going to remember everything. If you can take one of your manuscripts and feel a little distanced from yourself, as though the draft came from someone or somewhere else, if you can read like the reader would and finish wondering how that came out of you, you’re probably on the right track. Time and distance together offer a much more objective lens, and sometimes we can’t see how good our creations are until we’ve set them aside for a while.

4. You’re rejected with compliments. 

Rejections don’t automatically mean writing is a train wreck. Many times, it means that the publisher/editor isn’t looking for that particular topic, has already spent their budget, is too busy to take on new writers/clients, doesn’t take freelance pieces, or that your work just isn’t a fit for that particular editor’s personal, highly subjective preferences. And yes, doing your homework limits these situations, but that only goes so far–I’ve lost count of the websites that don’t even list the name of their acquisitions editors.

So rejections are going to happen even if you’re a query master/mistress. But over time, you should start getting some rejections that go beyond form letters. If the writing truly is of high quality, the editor will turn you down but encourage you to submit the piece elsewhere or flat out just say they think you’re an excellent writer. This shows they think the work has shown skill, even if they can’t publish it themselves.

5. Your sense of voice is balanced with an understanding of your audience/genre. 

Great authors have a unique sound on the page. It creeps up off the paper and infests our ears in an altogether enjoyable way. But good writers also can be somewhat flexible based on who is going to read the work. As an analogy, think about how you might talk to a kid versus a business CEO. Your core personality and way of thinking still shines through either way. But the approach is different–you’ll adapt elements like word choice and sentence length so the listener/reader can understand you better. Similarly, most of us have multiple roles (e.g., mother, cook, friend), and none of those singularly define who we are. In the same way, if you’re a good writer, you should be able to adjust without losing a sense that you’re speaking as “you”. Each adjustment shows a different side of you as a writer that has value, and none of those sides are any more or less authentic than another.

 

What Should Writing Workshops Really Teach?

If you want to get better at writing, just sign up for a writing workshop, right?

Maybe not.

In an article for The Practical Writer, Dan Barden argued that writing workshops don’t work. And the problem is twofold–we take a democratic approach and assume everyone has something to offer, and we maintain the idea that readers have some sort of obligation to us (they don’t).

According to Barden, serious writers essentially need a trial by fire. They need to be put through the wringer, to feel a little pain about their craft. Without that pain, the struggle, people never are really sure that they want to be artists enough. They don’t find their real voice or understand who they are. And instead of being about improving the writing, a workshop should focus on transforming the writer’s relationship to it.

This doesn’t mean that a good workshop can’t help you with the more technical aspects of the craft, or that it can’t prepare you for how to deal with different aspects of publishing. It certainly can. But Barden’s point was that those elements are far less important than grasping why a reader would want to pick up your manuscript. And it’s here that workshops so often drop the ball.

Like Barden, I think writers focus too much on the fact they just love to write. It’s OK to talk about it as if it’s a compulsion, a lust you have to stroke. I’ve done it myself, because that’s honestly, truthfully how I feel about it. But it is nothing if you don’t also recognize that readers don’t really care about your feelings. They care about having a story they can’t get out of their head. It’s not about whether you deserve their attention. It’s about whether what’s on the page does.

So if you really want to be a good writer, sure, work on those commas, figure out how to write query letters, all that. But first ask yourself if the story you want to tell genuinely has something worthwhile to it. There always should be a clear message. And ideally, that message should be something entirely new, something so enormous and penetrating that we’re not the same after we’ve heard it. Some concepts deserve the trash can, and the sooner you focus only on the ones that don’t, the sooner you’ll have the audience that naturally follows you.

The Burning Question: How Far Would You Go to Save Your Writing?

 

Firefighters rescued the survivors

Man photo created by jcomp – www.freepik.com

I come across intriguing and surprising things on social media just about every day. Today’s prize? This gem from the BBC:

Now, as you’ll see if you click on the link above and read the article, this piece is a few years old. But it showed up again on Twitter with just one question posed to writers–would you do what this guy did to save your writing?

Responses in the thread were mixed. But the majority of people had a common point. Why would you ever need to run into a burning building when there are tools like Google Drive that make it so insanely easy to back up drafts?

Dissenters gave two main rationales, the first of which was their choice of tool. The assumption is that writing will happen on technology like a laptop, but this isn’t always the case. Many writers prefer to draft on regular, old-fashioned paper, for example, while others use options like typewriters. In these cases, it’s the experience of the process that makes the difference.

Secondly, some writers mentioned that their writing needed plenty of revision away–that is, they simply didn’t have enough faith in what they’d produced to say they’d take a real risk for it.

Now, if you just think your work sucks and don’t care to save it, well, okay. That’s your choice. But I’d be quick to remind you that more than one writer has been shocked at their own success.

via GIPHY

And if you believe in yourself or at least have hope that someday you’ll have a draft others will care about as much as you do, then you have an obligation to figure out how you will create a backup for your work, whether that’s photocopies, to-self email attachments or the cloud. This is first and foremost because you need to respect both your life and the life of anyone who would try to rescue you in the emergency. But strictly from the standpoint of the craft, once a manuscript is lost, it’s usually lost forever.

 

via GIPHY

You owe it to your readers, be it current or those imagined for the future, to ensure that the worlds, characters and situations you envision will last beyond a lifetime.

So although the method is entirely up to you, just do everybody a favor.

Back that sh-t up.

 

The 6 Most Important Things You Should Be Writing (But Probably Aren’t)

As the world grows more commercial, there’s an increasing tendency to label only certain of writing as valuable. People encourage others to write books nearly as a right of passage, for example, and professionals apparently aren’t professional at all unless they publish papers or articles. News headlines still capture our attention, and no one wants to be without a collection of life hacks, self-help or how-to pieces.

Yet, if you’re not writing the following important things, you’re missing out.

1. A journal

Memoirs and journals are not the same thing. A memoir is your story told with a particular angle or spin you want. You get to pick and choose which parts to include and which to toss in the trash, and you write it in hindsight. But a journal is bigger and more raw. You write in the moment without caring how things tie together and give your honest thoughts or perception of events. And so it is much better at revealing who you are. It often can help you sort out what you’re feeling and aid in decision making, and you can look back on it not only as a memory aid, but as evidence of your growth or change. Many people swear by journaling as a way to organize themselves and control stress, too.

2. Letters

Although lots of writers have focused on writing thank you notes, traditional letters are equally important. They take longer to write than digital options like email, and that’s kind of the point. Since you can’t just autocorrect or bulk delete, they show the recipient that you’re willing to slow down, to really think about what you’re putting on the paper. Everyone likes to feel remembered, and a simple letter, sent even when someone hasn’t done anything for you, conveys the message you haven’t forgotten them. Unlike digital messages, traditional letters also are something people can keep to remember a relationship even in the most remote situations. They don’t require any account keeping and physically can last for decades or even centuries.

3. Family stories

What happened when Grandpa flew with the Allies into Germany in WWII? Why did Aunt Elaine always plant morning glories? Did Dad really hide the neighbor’s combine in the grove for a laugh? You never know unless you ask, and being able to share those stories helps those you love feel more significant. Writing it all down can help you appreciate who they are as people and how they connect to you, and it leaves a legacy. Plus, their stories can help you make sense of different times, circumstances and your own current difficulties.

4. Recipes

Can you buy a cookbook in about two seconds? Sure. It might not even cost you more than $1 if you go used or digital. But meals the way your family did them, that little dash of this or that or a personal technique from your grandma–those are what make dishes taste like home and be so insanely comforting. They can’t be bought, and as with family stories, once people are gone, they can’t ever share those tastes with you again. So whether it’s jam, cinnamon bread, goat cheese frittatas  or a good old-fashioned jambalaya, write it out and pass it down.

5. A goal breakdown/schedule

People fail to achieve goals for all kinds of reasons, including a lack of good support. But much of the time, failure happens simply because people set a target without identifying the specific path they need to walk to get there. Even if they know the broad steps necessary, they do not break those steps down into scheduled task items (e.g., find an agent = send out 4 queries every Saturday between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m.). Writing a goal breakdown will help you see just how easy or complex an objective is, let you gather and use resources well and get a better sense of progress so you can stay motivated.

6. A got-it-done list

You probably pay crazy attention to your to-do list. It’s there to keep you on track and productive. But a got-it-done list is meant to help you reflect on what you’ve accomplished, regardless of whether the accomplishments are what you set out to do or not. You write the list at the end of the day and use it to combat the feeling like you didn’t do enough or somehow wasted your time. It’s all about keeping your day in perspective so you can rest easy without guilt and start again fresh the next day.

All writing is important. But honing in on these half a dozen areas can help you see your life or circumstances with fresh eyes. These niches can relieve stress, strengthen relationships and ensure you take the right actions at the right time for what you want. So if all you write are cover letters or chat messages, spice it up. You might be surprised at how you feel with what comes out of your pen.