How to Spend Less Time on Twitter

Ah, Twitter. How I love thee. And how thou dost take up all my time and sometimes maketh me want to cry.

Sound familiar?

Back in the day, when I had a job in one of those office-thingies and didn’t ever have to do anything resembling “networking”, I had a Twitter account. And I had a Twitter addiction. So I abandoned said Twitter account, and suddenly found the day had a few more hours in it, and a lot fewer angry people. But then I started my own business and quickly realised that social media could be a powerful marketing tool, and so, knowing it was both a useful and potentially unwise thing to do, I headed back to Twitter.

And it was a good decision. Wordy Twitter (where the authors, editors, publishers, linguists and all the people in between hang out) is a very fun place to be. I learn a lot, I can keep up with trends in my industry, and I can connect with colleagues and clients. I’ve made friends and found work, all in 280-character chunks.

But there’s no denying that Twitter can be a time-sink. There’s just so much STUFF on there, and so many interesting people, that you log on to say a quick hi to your followers and half an hour later, there you are, reading your twelfth bad take on today’s hot topic.

I’m sure there are people out there who can say they’re only going to spend a few minutes on Twitter and actually do that before logging off, but none of them are me. If they’re not you either, then read on for some of the tips that help me stay away from Twitter so I have more time to devote to Facebook. Editing. I mean editing.

Turn off your notifications

The temptation to check what’s happening as soon as you get a notification can be really strong. Take away that temptation. The conversation will wait. You can thank someone for the Retweet later. And you really don’t want to interrupt whatever it is you’re doing just to discover that Great Free Giveaways (UK) follows you!

Get rid of the app altogether

The mobile site is fine, but nowhere near as easy as using the Twitter app, which is a good thing if you’re trying to use it less. It’s also harder to see your notifications, so you’re less likely to be tempted by those.

Or use a third-party app to control what you see

One of my naughty Twitter habits is veering out of Wordy Twitter to check out what’s trending, and that’s when I end up down a rabbit hole. Twidere is an app that lets me customise my home screen, and I can choose not to show the Trends list and search bar. I can still use them, but going through one extra menu can be enough to make me stop and have a word with myself.

Know your weaknesses, and mute them

I’m interested in politics. And while it’s no bad thing to be politically engaged, there’s an awful lot on Twitter you can engage with. And this not only takes up more of my time than I’d like, it sometimes takes up a lot of my mental and emotional energy. So although it’s pained me to do it, I’ve muted all the accounts, words and phrases I can think of related to the topics that are guaranteed to pull me in. It’s impossible to filter it all out, but my timeline is a much happier place now I’ve muted, for example, the Tweets of a certain world leader…

Turn off Retweets

This was a thing I discovered recently, and it’s made me very happy. There are some accounts I follow because I want to be connected with them and I like the things they Tweet, but they are a tad Retweet-happy. Authors with a book out might Retweet every positive review, for example, and while I’m not necessarily uninterested, the sheer volume of content can be overwhelming. The good news is that if you go to their profile, there is an option to turn off their Retweets. You’ll still be connected, and you’ll still see their own Tweets, but it will slim down your feed.

Use a blocking/monitoring app

And if you need to bring out the big guns, there are hundreds of apps available that can help you curb your Twitter time. Apps that give you a gentle nudge if you’re spending too long on Twitter, apps that just won’t let you on it, apps that will shame you at the end of the day by telling you exactly how much time you wasted – there are plenty out there, and many of them are free. I’ve used BreakFree and AppDetox on my phone and was thoroughly horrified by the stats from both of them.

If you have any other tips for a healthy Twitter-life balance, please share! And if you’d like to find me on Twitter, I’m @KiaThomasEdits

2018: Thinking Less, Doing More

Happy New Year!

Yes, I know, I’m eight days late. It’s not my fault. My children have only gone back to school this morning, and the cold that decided to show up on New Year’s Day has finally receded to the point where I can stop counting the seconds until I can take my next dose of decongestant.

I’ve already done my look back over 2017, so I suppose I should do that look-forward-to-2018 thing. By the way, I’m not at all happy about it being 2018. It still feels too sci-fi for me. Like, where are the flying cars and stuff? Also, typing this has just made me realise that I put the wrong year on the kids’ dinner money cheques. Oh well. Hopefully they’ll feed them anyway.

Anyway, 2018. What will that be for? I’m not making resolutions as such this year, not publicly at least, because I invariably don’t keep them. But I’ve developed a new motto over the last few days as I’ve been trying to gear up into a new, positive, 2018-suitable mindset, and it’s this: Think less, do more. (Yes, that’s a comma splice, and no, I don’t care. No one puts semicolons in peppy inspirational mottoes.)

I’m a thinker. Normally, that’s a good thing – you can’t, after all, do a job like mine if you’re not willing and able to think carefully about what your client is trying to say and if you can help them say it more effectively. But overthinking can get in the way of progress. This is true in editing: we’ve all had those moments where we’ve gone over and over a sentence, knowing there are a few different options for correcting or improving it, not knowing which is the best one, and at some point you’ve just got to take a deep breath, make a decision, make or suggest the change, and move on to the next problem. And it’s true in life, but it can be much, much harder to take that breath and make that choice. Sometimes we know what we need to do, but if we think too much about it, we start to make excuses about why we don’t have to do it right now. We persuade ourselves that a better option might present itself. We get scared that a decision may take us down a path that isn’t quite the right one. And so we can never move on to the next problem, because we haven’t let ourselves solve the first one.

So I’m going to try and turn off my brain a little. Not too much – I’m not advocating acting on every random whim with no regard for the consequences. But I’m going to identify a thing that needs doing, think about it just enough to conclude that it’s not a ridiculous thing, and then do that thing. And I’m off to a good start – fifty minutes ago I decided I was going to blog, and now I have.

Here’s to a more productive 2018!

2017 in Review

I know the year’s not over yet, but what with the endless social engagements and chocolate-eating one must fit in at this time of year, I’m going to go ahead and review 2017 now. I’d like to think not much will change in the next two weeks, but if this year has taught us anything, it should have been the fallaciousness of a statement like that. But anyway, here are the bits of 2017 that stood out for me:

Favourite editing job  – This is tough call, because I love all my clients and hate to show favouritism. But I’m so proud of my client and friend Elizabeth Grey. This year, she has drastically revamped her first novel, taught herself formatting and cover design, published not only that first novel but a bonus novella, started on her next book, and set up a cover-design business. It was a real pleasure working on Just Friends and Always You, and I’m really looking forward to the rest of the series.

Book of the yearThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I had heard of this YA novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and was interested in reading it, but what really prompted me to buy it was the Lani Sarem/NYT nonsense. So I’m thankful to Sarem for that at least, because THUG is astonishing. Vibrant, honest, raw and heartbreaking – everyone should read this.

Professional highlight – Without a doubt, the SfEP conference in September. I went on about this at length on my blog, but it really was the most fantastic thing I could have done this year. I learned so much, met some fantastic people, and came away full of ideas about how to improve as an editor and grow my business.

Professional low point – An unexpected dry spell due to cancellations early in the year hit my cashflow and my morale hard. It forced me to look more closely at how much effort I was really putting in to marketing my business (answer: not nearly enough). I’ve still got a long way to go in this respect, but that time really forced me out of my comfort zone and to get over my fears of approaching potential clients. It wasn’t quite as horrible as I was expecting it to be, and hopefully I can build on that experience to minimise the chances of those gaping holes in my schedule appearing again.

Social media highlight – my 59 days of #TheDailySwear were tremendous fun, and I even managed to shock myself by running out of swears, something I never thought would happen. It entertained some people, and I’ve even been told it’s actually helped someone answer a query, so that makes the endeavour all worthwhile. I admit that part of this was inspired by Lousie Harnby and John Espirian’s content marketing session at the SfEP conference. It really got me thinking about what it is that I can offer other people. Turns out it’s swearing.

Revelation of the year – I am very, very easily distracted. I knew this, of course, but I didn’t realise until recently quite how much it was affecting my productivity. Since I started working in Pomodoro-type chunks, I’ve become a much faster, and better, editor. Also gaining a very honourable mention is the revelation that discovering I’m bad at something – and even having other people discover I’m bad at something – is not the worst thing in the world.

Hardest email to write – Telling a client their manuscript wasn’t ready for the line and copy-edit they’d booked. I hate doing this. It’s horrible. It feels like you’re squashing someone’s baby (not that I have all that much experience of squashing other people’s babies. Or my own). But I know that the book is going to end up so much stronger for it, and I’m really impressed with the way the author has embraced the challenge.

Most worrying internet search – While editing Sick Fux by Tillie Cole, trying to figure out whether “hematolagnia”(don’t Google it, at least not at work) can be used attributively. Results were inconclusive – apparently not many people ever need to use that word in any way. They clearly have more normal jobs than me.

So that was 2017. Definitely a year of learning lessons for me, and 2018’s going to be a year of applying what I’ve learned in order to achieve world domination. Or, failing that, lots of interesting and rewarding editing jobs and a healthy dose of personal and professional development. That’s probably less tiring than world domination. Slightly.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

 

 

The Noble Art of Being Not Very Good at Stuff

I fulfilled a bit of a life goal last night – I sang with a live band. I love singing, and I’ve always been alright at it when I sing on my own, or with the choirs I’ve been involved with over the years, or doing the odd bit of karaoke. But despite being around bands and people who are in them for my entire adult life, I’d never managed to sing with one before. I’d wanted to, but I’d always been far too scared of completely fucking it up and making a total arse of myself.

But I was pretty tired last night. My defences were down. So when the singer in my husband’s band tried to persuade me to sing a song with them, I had an uncharacteristic moment of sod-it-ness and agreed.

And I completely fucked it up and made a total arse of myself. So I laughed, apologised to the audience and the rest of the band, sat back down and enjoyed the rest of my evening.

Wild and interesting story, right? There’s a point to it, I promise.

See, anyone who knows me knows that I do not like being bad at things. I mean, I doubt it’s anyone’s favourite thing to be, but I really, really do not like being bad at things, and I will go to great lengths to avoid anyone thinking I’m bad at something. At school, I once faked a sprained ankle so the rest of my year group wouldn’t see exactly how much I sucked at cross-country. As I got older and there was less enforced sport, avoiding the things I knew I probably wouldn’t do well got easier. I stuck to the things I knew I could do, and I enjoyed both the feeling of competence and the feeling of being praised for that competence. I learned and I grew and I took advantage of opportunities, of course, but only in the areas I already had a pretty good idea I could excel in.

But in these last (almost) two years of freelancing, I haven’t had the luxury of running away and hiding in the places I feel safe. There is only me now, and if I want to make my business a success, I can’t decide that I don’t want to have a go at certain parts of running a business just because there’s a chance I might not do it perfectly or that I might make a fool of myself. And it seems all of this has finally taught me an important life lesson – that sometimes you’re going to suck at stuff, and people are going to see that you suck at it, and that’s not the end of the world. But you’ll never know until you try.

I’m not saying you should have a go at everything even if you think you might be terrible. I don’t think I’d be very good at editing cozy mysteries, for example. Not because of any self-confidence issues, but because I’ve never read one in my life, and until last year I didn’t even know what one was. I’m not going to take on those kinds of jobs, because I’d be doing the client a disservice by not being the right person for the work. And I’m not about to turn into some kind of “Seize the day! Follow your dreams!” kind of person – I’m always going to be quite risk-averse. Making big changes to your life is hard, especially when there’s a lot at stake, like the roof over your head, and it’s okay to be a bit scared of that. But if, like I’ve always done, you find yourself shying away from opportunities, ask yourself what it is you’re really afraid of damaging – someone else’s work, your financial or personal situation, or your sense of yourself as someone who has to do things well. You can overcome a lack of skills or knowledge through research and training. You can work on your circumstances to manoeuvre yourself into a position where the risks are mitigated. But a fear of failure for failure’s sake will always stop you unless you just…get over it.

It’s easier said than done. No one knows that better than me. And yes, there is always a chance that when you try that thing, you’ll be terrible at it. But just being terrible at something is nothing to be scared of. It might mean you have to make adjustments – you might discover you need more training, to do more research, to outsource that thing in future, or, in my case, to accept that you need a career Plan B that isn’t “become the next Beyoncé”. But at least you’ll know, and you can move forward.

I could not have written this blog post two years ago. There’s no way I could have taken anything positive from the fact that I made such a tit of myself. I still lie awake cursing the time I messed up my lines in the infant school performance of Rip Van Winkle in 1989, and I’m pretty sure I’m never going to be able to listen to “You Get What You Give” by the New Radicals without wanting to crawl into a hole and die a little bit. But I’m learning, slowly, that I don’t have to be good at everything. I can balls something up, and it doesn’t have to have a huge impact on the way I see myself. I’m still me. I’m still generally a competent, capable person. Just not one who should ever be given a microphone.

There are three weeks left of this year. That thing, the one you’ve always been too scared to try? There’s still time to make 2017 the year you found out if you could do it. And if it turns out you can’t, you’ll be okay. Honest.

Pinches of Salt 4: Show, Don’t Tell

If you’ve spent any time at all in any space where people discuss creative writing, you’ve almost certainly heard this advice. It’s the big one, the one piece of advice that all writers are supposed to follow without question. There’s a reason for that: it’s bloody good advice. Strong writing “shows” instead of “tells”. And yet.

The problem, as it so often is, is when the advice becomes a rule, and the “rule” is explained badly, and people follow it without really understanding what it means. So let’s look at what “show vs. tell” actually means.

It’s kind of hard to explain, actually. Which is why it usually gets illustrated with an example, and the example is almost always something like this:

Tell = John was angry

Show = John slammed his fists on the table, his face bright red.

So, the first sentence is a very bald stating of the thing the author wants us to know. John was angry. You know that because you’ve been told, and you’ll just have to take my word for it. But in the second example, I’m not telling you anything about how John feels. I’ve described what he’s doing, and leaving you to make up your own mind about how he feels. You don’t have to decide whether or not you trust what I’m telling you about John’s mood, because you can see it in his actions and demeanour. This kind of example is a really good introduction to the basics of show and tell.

But it’s just that – an introduction to the basics. The problem is that this is where the advice often stops, and this gets interpreted as meaning “Show the characters’ inner emotions through their physical behaviour.” Now, you need some of this. People’s emotions do manifest themselves through certain behaviours, so the same should be true of realistic characters. These behaviours help the reader picture a scene and believe in the emotions. But it’s really, really easy to go overboard and end up with a story that’s completely bogged down in clichéd little gestures. Characters end up stomping everywhere, constantly raising their eyebrows (or just one, which apparently every single fictional character can do and I can’t, so I’m jealous), frowning, sighing, looking away, biting their lips and generally coming across as if they can’t stop fidgeting. (Note that it isn’t a problem at all if your character does these things – they are very common and natural reactions. But you can have too much of a good thing.)

I (borrowing from John Gardner in The Art of Fiction) prefer to think of showing as proof. Or, if we’re going to be down with the kids, bringing receipts. You want your reader to know something, you’ve got to give them no choice but to believe it. You’ve got to be able to back up what you’re saying, in thought and word and deed. And it doesn’t stop with the minute-to-minute emotional states of your characters and the corresponding gestures. Your main themes, your character’s personalities and motivations, the relationships they have with each other, the world they live in – proving these things is far, far more important than making sure your characters slam their fists on tables when they’re angry. There’s a reason why so many romance novels start with the hero hustling some woman out of his bed and getting her name wrong while he does so. It’s to prove that he’s a player, a strictly hump-’em-and-dump-’em kind of guy, so when he tells the reader – and the woman who will obviously, after a few obstacles, become The One – he’s not the commitment type, we really believe it.

Showing the big stuff builds the reader’s trust. It gives credibility to the world and story you have created. One of the (many) things a lot of people found deeply frustrating about Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, is this lack of credibility. The reader is constantly told by other characters that Ana is intelligent, but there are few very examples of her actually behaving in an intelligent way or saying intelligent things, which makes it harder to believe in the characters and their story.

Another place where the interpretation of “show, don’t tell” as “show emotions through physical behaviour” can be unhelpful is in very close points of view such as first person. The whole point of deep POVs is that they allow the writer, and therefore the reader, to get right inside a character’s head. Think about what happens in your head. Do you have a running commentary of what your various body parts are doing? You probably don’t. Showing emotions through physical behaviour is great for observing other people’s reactions, because we can’t get inside their head; we can only describe what we can see. But we can get inside a POV character’s head, and it often makes for much stronger, more personal writing to use this privileged insight rather than relying on gestures which can all too easily become clichéd. Take being angry – when you’re angry with someone, are you thinking about your fists slamming on the table? Or are you thinking, “I’m going to kill him. How dare he? Who does he think he is?” Don’t get me wrong, a bit of fist-slamming often doesn’t go amiss in this type of situation. You want to give your reader clues to what’s physically going on in the scene, to help them picture it. But relying solely on external cues for your “showing” is wasting the opportunities a deep POV offers. The things your characters say, both out loud and in their own heads, are as much proof of their emotional state as the things they do with their bodies.

And, of course, another problem with “show, don’t tell” is the way it becomes a blanket rule. You cannot show everything. Showing takes more words, more time, than telling, in the same way that proving someone is guilty in court takes a lot more time than simply showing up and saying “She totally did it, Your Honour.” Trying to never write anything someone could accuse of being “telling” will exhaust you, bloat your word count, and slow down the pace of your story. The key thing is balance. You need a bit of show, a bit of tell, and the really, really hard part is figuring out when you need to do each. But a good place to start is to figure out what you really need your reader to trust you about. What does your reader absolutely have to know about your characters and your story? What moment does your reader really have to believe in? Showing the important things builds that trust in the reader, and means they’re more likely to believe the little bits of telling you will inevitably need to do.

Now we’ve established that “show, don’t tell” is a lot bigger than a small example can really demonstrate, let’s look at a small example. But let’s ask some questions about it:

Example:

“I am bored.”

  • Does this sentence actually suffer from the problem? – Yes, we are being told how a character feels, with absolutely no evidence whatsoever.
  • What effect would applying this piece of advice have on this sentence? Let’s start with applying the advice in the simplified emotions-as-actions sense. If we replace it with something like “I yawn and drum my fingers on the tabletop”, we’ve got a more vivid picture of the character, who, for brevity, I am going to call Eve.
  • Is that the effect I want? Maybe, maybe not. Vividness is generally good, so many would agree that the revision is a much stronger sentence. But what if Eve is in a position where she can’t yawn and drum her fingers on the table? Maybe the boring thing is her boss, and she’s at an important dinner with important clients that could make or break her career? Here’s one of those opportunities where we can use the privileges of first-person POV – “God, I’m bored. Are they ever going to stop talking? Would they notice if I just fell asleep in my crème caramel?” We have no physical action here, but we do have a lot more character voice, and the questions in the second two sentences help prove the sentiment of the first.

Another option is to switch the focus of the showing – instead of trying to show that Eve is bored, we can show that her boss is boring: “Mr Jenkins drones on and on about the lack of choice in the flowerpot department of his local garden centre” – the reader doesn’t need to be told, or even shown, that Eve is bored, because with the evocative verb “drones” and the description of the subject matter, the reader can feel that boredom for themselves.

  • Result – well, that really depends on what your intention is for that moment. The possibilities are as endless as your imagination, as long as you don’t let yourself be limited by the idea that you must show emotions through physical actions.

So, there you have it. “Show, don’t tell”, means you should write a story about a woman who gets kicked out of bed, slams her fists on the table and goes to buy a flowerpot. Or something like that.

Pinches of Salt 3: Avoid unnecessary, redundant words that you just don’t need.

The next in my series of advice about writing advice deals with unnecessary words. This is one I’ve seen a lot – people are always eager to share their lists of words that they seek and destroy in their writing. The lists vary from person to person, but they often include “that”, “very”, “then”, “next”, “just”, and “suddenly”. “Find them and kill them with fire!” they say.

This advice comes from a very reasonable place. “That” for example, when used as a conjunction – for example, “She knew that she should be cleaning the kitchen instead of blogging” – can often be removed from a sentence without affecting the meaning in the slightest. (Note, though, that there are many other ways of using “that”, and you can’t just go round removing those willy-nilly. That would leave you with nonsense. You can see that.) Similarly, you very often don’t need “then” or “next” to indicate the order of a series of events – readers will generally assume they happen in the order they appear unless told otherwise. “Suddenly” often gets paired with things that are by their nature sudden: “Suddenly, there was a bolt of lightning” – as opposed to those other types of bolts of lightning that amble along casually. “Very” can make for clunky sentences, and if you need to emphasise an adjective, you can often find a better adjective that will do the job (this means, if we’re going to be pedantic about it, the word is not so much redundant as pointing to a different problem). Sometimes taking out redundant words is an easy way of tightening up your writing.

But “redundancy”, especially in fiction, is a curious thing. It’s true, you might not need a word to help convey a sentence’s meaning. But rhythm is a very (I don’t need this “very”, but I like it for rhythm and emphasis) important part of writing. In good prose, how it feels can be just (you’re not taking that “just” away from me either) as important as what it means. Character voice is also something to consider – maybe your character is the type to never use one word when seventeen will do, in which case you don’t want to tighten up their sentences. Maybe your character is a small child telling their long-suffering mother about their day. If you want to authentically capture that voice, you’ll want to put in a lot of “and thens”. Trust me.

It’s almost impossible to do examples with our questions for this bit of advice, because things like rhythm and voice are so hard to pin down, and entirely depend on the surrounding words and sentences. But it’s important to bear them in mind when you’re editing your work (or someone else’s) and looking for those “unnecessary” words, particularly the last two:

  • What effect would applying this piece of advice have on this sentence?
  • Is that the effect I want?

Words that don’t add meaning sometimes help guide the reader through a complex sentence or paragraph, or slow down a sentence that could otherwise feel too brisk, or add emphasis, so don’t be in too much of a hurry to cull them mercilessly. If you feel your word count is bloated, by all means do a search for some of those words and consider if they’re needed, but, as the song they taught us at primary school almost went, “Stop, look and listen, before you press delete.”

And now I’ve earwormed myself. Dagnammit.

 

 

Winter is…well, here.

All across the land, an army of homeworkers sit at our desks, fingerless gloves on our blue, trembling hands, blankets around our shivering shoulders. We will not surrender to our weakness. We will not take the easy way out.

Maybe, though, we should.

I don’t like putting the heating on. Every time I do, I can hear the gas meter whizzing round, clocking up the kWh, draining away my hard-earned cash. But today, I was bloody cold, and a bit miserable because of it. And then I watched this lovely little video by Lisa Cordaro, and by the end of it I was feeling very positive. Yes! I cried. Self-care is important! And part of that self-care, I realised, is putting the damn heating on when I am cold.

I work at home. I am not just fannying around in my house; I am running a business. And businesses have expenses. Employers should do what they can to make sure their employees have a comfortable working environment. If someone else worked for me, I wouldn’t tell them to get a blanket and suck it up, so why should I do it to myself? There is a reason heating is an allowable expense on your tax return.

So I told myself all this, and I put the heating on. Then I panicked about my gas bill, so I Googled “How much does central heating cost?”. I couldn’t find a good answer, because obviously the answer depends on the size of your house and the efficiency of your boiler, but the answers I did find assured me that a day’s heating shouldn’t be more than a few quid. I used to spend more than that on bus fare or petrol and parking when I worked in an office, and I just accepted it as part of the cost of going to work.

It feels different when you’re at home, like so many things do. Blurring the boundaries between home and work has been great for me in many ways. But I’m not yet good enough at treating my home as the site of my business, and things like heating as a legitimate expense rather than an indulgence. But as freelancers, we need to look after ourselves. If we don’t, we risk affecting our work, and then we’re not only miserable, we’re giving our clients less than they deserve.

So I am giving myself permission to be warm. Or warm-ish, a little bit, sometimes. I’m not going to go too mad. I am still a northerner, after all.