Book Review: A Handbook for the Productive Writer – 33 Ways You Can Finish What You Started

book review

As a freelance writer, I hit road blocks from time to time.I find it hard to really get in and get the job done for myriad reasons, from the project, the deadline or what is going on in my personal life. Whether it’s the inability to concentrate or a lack of inspiration, I really don’t have go-to method for getting out of my funk. I recently picked up Bryan Collins’ book, A Handbook for the Productive Writer – 33 Ways You Can Finish What You Started to gain some clarity and useful tools for the next time I have problems moving forward with a project. I am going to share my book review with you as I think it will be helpful for many writers out there, and extract a few of the most helpful tips I gained from the book so you can see if they worked for you as they did for me.

The book review: what the book was about

Collins’ book is truly crafted for writers of all genres and I found his insight very useful. He first begins the book by suggesting various writing prompts that might help the writer get out of his/her inspiration rut. I have always found writing prompts useful, but I rarely use them. The writing prompts are used as a warm-up “workout” to the main “race”. When preparing to do actual physical activity, if you don’t warm up and stretch a bit, you are more prone to injury. The writing prompts acted as a warm up; I found they helped me flush out random ideas and thoughts before working on the main project. In addition, writing prompts and free writes, as Collins suggests, help a writer get his/her thoughts flowing without constraint or worry about grammar and sentence structure. Collins says, “Free writing only works if you don’t question or criticize every sentence…let the words flow freely from your fingers onto the paper without pausing or questioning what you are saying.”

Finding focus: advice to writers

To focus your mind on the project at hand, Collins also advises writers to stop and organize their expectations about, thoughts for and challenges of the project. I will be the first to admit that I am a fan of a good list. I am drawn to its simplicity and ease at which one can read and process it. A few lists he suggests are:

– ten headlines

– ten interviewees you can source

– ten strengths/weaknesses of your topic

– ten questions you need answers to and

– ten ways to open and close your story with a bang.

Other recommendations

In the book, Collins also mentions the importance of the setting SMART goals for one’s writing projects. These goals would serve as a guide to assist the writer with staying on track and working toward a final product. SMART is an acronym: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. Collins notes that each project has a desired outcome and writers should write down all the actions needed for each one.  It is important to make these goals visible and check back routinely to ensure the plan is being executed.

Freshening your approach

One of the final pieces of advice Collins gives in the book is that it’s ok to tell a little lie. I really enjoyed this chapter because I realized that at times, my blockages stem from my inability to write copy I think is “profound”. I get stuck trying to be original or sound like the ultimate “expert”. There’s nothing wrong with exploring other avenues or wanting to present a project in an original way, but if it keeps me from getting my work done then there’s a problem. According to Collins, I need to tell myself that I do indeed have something original and new to say (even when I don’t feel that way). “You can use a white lie to freshen up the way you write about an old topic.” Collins adds, “I’m not suggesting you [writers] willfully mislead your reader. Instead, the productive writer sometimes turns a fact on its head and attacks their project from a new and exciting angle.” Many times, that is all a writer might need to gain a little momentum to get the job done.

In all, writing can be an arduous process at times. It is important for us, as writers, to keep it fresh as we work and seek ways to hone our craft. Whether it be from an easy project or one that is causing us some trouble, Collins’ book offers insightful solutions to problems large and small.

ABOUT Arris Shabaglian

For more than a decade Arris has worked as a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant. She has also taught university level courses on the art of communication, public relations and journalism. Arris is a Pinterest addict who loves a good night’s sleep and a nice cup of coffee. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three kids (hence the need for a nice cup of coffee).

Where We Went: Were the Five Graphic Design Predictions We Made for 2017 Accurate? And What’s Next?

graphic design trends 2018

A little over a year ago, we gave our predictions for the graphic design trends we thought would go big in 2017. So, just how accurate was our crystal ball?

Illustration would return in a big way: true

Our designer Ryan (who wrote this piece!) works with at least two large firms who’ve hired illustrators for their in-house design teams in the past year. These folks were brought on to support brand initiatives that feature proprietary iconography and illustration, which makes him think that this trend—if you want to call it that—will stick around for at least a few more years. And, product illustration has returned in a big way, too, with apparel companies and other retailers, both online and in printed catalogs. While we still have a way to go to match the volume of illustration seen in earlier decades, it seems that illustration is back to stay.

The end of the ampersand: true

Consider this one a cautionary tale. What began as a nod to authenticity—the ampersand as branding element—suddenly became the mark of a brand that seemed affected and contrived. The ampersand has now been (mostly) relegated to aspirational suburban pubs & strip mall sandwich shops.

Retro inspiration sticks around: true

Maybe somewhat at odds with sudden death of the ampersand, but, aligned with the return of  illustration, retro-inspired design certainly found a foothold 2017. This vintage influence—when executed honestly—can serve a brand well.

Cinemagraphs everywhere: somewhat true

Ryan predicted that cinemagraphs—defined as still images in which a minor and repeated movement occurs”—would be big in 2017, and, while they have made inroads, they’ve not yet proven to be the force he thought they’d be. Cinemagraphs are a trend that might take a while to gain some traction, but we’re willing to give them a little more time. Furthermore, cinemagraphs work well in conjunction with illustration, which bodes well for their future, too.

Bright colors in unlikely places: true

In the past year, we’ve been witness to several major rebrands and each has incorporated new, brighter colors into their respective corporate palette. These are financial, education and insurance organizations, institutions which likely would have avoided such colors in years past. This trend toward more vibrant colors goes hand in hand with the continued success of “flat” design, too, as it can help lend a sense of hierarchy to a web page. 

And, the two graphic design trends that we think will be big in 2018?

Interactive “print” design: we’ve seen a big uptick in client requests for interactive PDFs, e-books, and Adobe InDesign files published online. Where before, a client may have sent a prospect a printed introduction or proposal, many are now providing it either as an interactive PDF or a web link to a virtual piece posted online. Rather than being technology for the sake of technology, these alternatives provide the option of including interactivity: animations, embedded sound and video, active infographics and other features designed to engage the viewer.

The death of “concepts” and the rise of all that is authentic: in trying times, we tend to respond to what is safe, what is familiar and what is authentic- design “comfort food,” if you will. Because of this, we predict less design experimentation in 2018, with the focus instead being on the revival of (and development of) traditional design themes.

We’ll check back in in twelve months to see if we were right!

ABOUT Ryan Bahrke

One of Wordsmithie's senior designers, Ryan has more than 15 years of experience in creative direction and management, working with companies like Google, Quantcast, RSM, Navigant, Starbucks, and Ace Hotel. Ryan is the principal of Auslander Creative in Denver.

Upskilling Your Teams to Minimize the Talent Gap

upskilling your talent

People flit from job to job. Employers downsize at the drop of a hat. New recruits don’t come equipped with well-rounded skill sets. Such common complaints come from all angles, affecting employee retention, career interest, longevity and position.

To minimize the talent gap many companies and organizations experience, innovative leaders are more readily looking to upskill their people, a concept and practice offering multiple benefits to employers, employees and teams alike.

Optimize the opportunity

To maximize upskilling opportunities requires trust, accountability and flexibility – and buy-in from all key stakeholders. Employers must value their people enough to invest in them beyond salaries and benefits. Employees must value learning new skills and taking on challenges that might seem daunting at first glance. Team members must value sharing knowledge and skills with one another, and view each project as a common goal rather than a chance for just one person to shine. These elements might require a paradigm shift within certain companies but can easily become part of best practices for many if not all.

Benefits abound!

There are many benefits to spending resources training current employees in learning new skills, including:
-saving money and time on searching and advertising for new hires as well as the hiring, onboarding and training processes to replace those who have left – especially on company culture, a familiar topic to current employees.
-boosting morale – by offering more opportunities for responsibility and accountability, most people rise to the occasion and are more motivated to perform.
-capitalizing on current brainpower – when people are challenged to share what they know with others in their work groups, team results are often more productive than those without such an exchange.

Ready to move forward? 

You’ve already got buy-in from your leadership team, and your team members are eager to learn more and teach others what they know. First hurdle cleared. When thinking about implementing upskilling opportunities in your workplace, keep the following important elements in mind:

-People need time to learn new tricks. Provide space within the workday/week for your employees to engage with new material.
-Learning programs don’t have to be expensive, robust online endeavors (but they certainly could be!). Why not start with skillshare lunch or happy hour sessions and invite “on it” people to share what they know within 30-45 minutes and host open discussion forums for another 15-30 minutes? It’s an easy way to allow others to showcase what they know, and garner interest in new skills learned from others.
-Remember how we all liked receiving those gold star stickers from our teachers? Ask employees to create personal skills inventories to gauge who could teach others skills necessary for smart moves within the company. They’ll also be able to create targeted, personalized learning (or work or development) plans from this vantage point. Employees can monitor their own progress and managers can offer recognition for reaching milestones.
-Develop additional microlearning opportunities for employees and teams. Delivering new information in small bursts is best!
-Set up mentoring partners. Matching subject matter experts with those eager to learn targeted skills is a terrific way to spark engaged training environments. Partners can co-create personal development plans.
-Provide resources for more formalized training programs. Both virtual and actual classroom courses and certifications are readily available on a variety of subjects and skills. Even if your company isn’t offering its own online learning programs, you can share existing platforms with your teams targeted towards needed skills and interests.

There are plenty of ways to boost skills building within your company. Just look to the people and resources that are already in place to make the most of your existing masterminds and develop new experts.

ABOUT Eve Connell

Eve spends most billable hours writing, editing and helping professionals of all stripes with communication skills and leadership development. With degrees in French literature, philosophy, and linguistics, she also enjoys helping businesses and entrepreneurs develop their brands. Fancying herself a successful worm rancher, singer and flower arranger, Eve also lends her talent and expertise to several non-profit arts and educational organizations.

A Primer on HTML for Beginners

HTML for beginners

Almost anyone who has written anything online has come across a time when they wished their text or images looked…well, different, at least. Whether you’re using Squarespace, WordPress, Wix or another CMS, a little background in HTML can do wonders for the visual quality of your content. If you’re struggling to get started with HTML, we have you covered with a short primer on HTML basics for the HTML beginner.

What does HTML stand for? HTML means hypertext markup language. It basically describes the structure of webpages using markup.

HTML is comprised of elements. Each HTML element is a building block of a webpage. Elements are represented by tags, which label pieces of content such as paragraphs, headings and tables.

HTML tags generally come in pairs. The first tag in the pair is the start tag, and the last the end tag. Most tags come in pairs because for every open tag, you’ll need to close it to let the browser know you are stopping one type of content and beginning another.

There are many different versions of HTML, beginning in 1991 with HTML. In 2014, HTML5 was introduced. There isn’t much a beginner needs to worry about when it comes to the various types of HTML.

To get started using HTML, you can start to view your CMS editor in text, rather than visual, mode. You’ll see the HTML that your content is built upon, and you can start to edit your content from there.

Example HTML tags include:

– <b>, which bolds the copy you select. For example, This is a statement with a word that is <b>bolded</b>.

-<i>, which italicizes the copy you select. For example, This is a statement with a word that is <i>italicized</i>.

– <p>, which creates a new paragraph for each part of your content.

– <a href=> creates a clickable link.

If you’re still feeling like you need more support as a beginner in the HTML world, or you’re just interested in learning more about HTML, check out w3schools, which has a lot of free content about HTML for beginners through to the most advanced users.

ABOUT Khaleelah Jones

Khaleelah Jones is a digital marketing consultant who has worked with tech startups, educational institutions and non-profits on acquisition and engagement strategy, implementation and KPI modeling. When she’s not working, she can be found reading, writing, pontificating history, yoga-ing and making up verbs.

Surviving the Holiday Work Slump

Managing the stress amid deadlines and expectations is hard. This time of year is stressful; between the various holiday parties, family gatherings, and extra weekend activities, it can be difficult to stay focused on your work.

If you’ve been feeling sluggish and lacking focus, you’re not alone. According to Peakon, an HR data analysis company, 61 percent of individuals surveyed said they were distracted by the time Thanksgiving rolled around in November. By mid-December, most workers were simply checked out. Peakon also found that six in 10 workers said their productivity declined in the week before Christmas.

This means that for about a month, you’ve been dragging your feet to meet those deadlines AND meet with family and friends for those extra activities. Since the deadlines don’t just go away and your commitments during the holiday season only seem to increase, here are a few tips to survive the holiday work slump.

1) Aside from those big projects that require more time and detail, modify your schedule during the holidays . Some experts suggest that with a good night’s sleep you tend to have more energy in the morning. Perhaps if you go to bed early and wake up a few hours earlier to start work, you won’t feel so bad about closing up shop around 2 p.m. a few days a week.
2) Make a list and check it twice. Santa’s not the only one who has to do this. During the holidays, more than ever, it’s important to maximize your time –especially if you’re ending your work day earlier than is usual. Make a detailed list of the tasks you need to complete before ending your day –and check it twice before moving on to your holiday shopping list!
3) Be honest and communicate clearly with your clients, co-workers and/or boss. Chances are, everyone else is feeling the holiday work slump, too. For projects with soft deadlines, it might be best to push those out to the beginning of the new year. This will leave you more time to work on those urgent projects and perhaps you could even find the time to bake several dozen cookies for your mail carrier, hair stylist and whoever else could use some good cheer during the holiday season.
4) Carve out time for you to relax and enjoy the season. Between running around from one event to another, standing in line to purchase gifts, cleaning and organizing to host family and all the other items on your list, when you finally come up for air, the holiday season has passed you by and you can’t even remember what you did. Although it might seem nearly impossible to do, try to take some time to soak it all in. It could be just sitting by a fire drinking a cup of coffee or stepping outside to meditate for a few minutes. By taking a few minutes to relax, you might get the little push you need to overcome the holiday work slump.

ABOUT Arris Shabaglian

For more than a decade Arris has worked as a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant. She has also taught university level courses on the art of communication, public relations and journalism. Arris is a Pinterest addict who loves a good night’s sleep and a nice cup of coffee. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three kids (hence the need for a nice cup of coffee).