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Writing

How to Succeed on a Content Platform: Enter a Community, not a Talent Show

The path to success is like a road with an unknown destination hidden behind a turn. Our typical behaviour is to try guessing the destination and then deduct the road. We want maps, instructions, recipes, or even enlightening, but not the work with unpredictable results. When there are no maps, we are often driven by myths and illusions.

My biggest illusion back when I joined Steemit was that authors are rewarded for their literary talent in the first place. But then my eyes opened on how things really work.

A community rewards its members in accordance with the role played and the value produced by them. Authors are rewarded not for their content itself, as if in a talent show, but for being useful to the community, for taking a specific role and offering a needed service.

Sometimes being useful really means producing quality literature, but more often than not it answers other community needs, like for example the need to see how others cope with the difficulties of life, or the need to connect to an expert, or the need for optimism, or the need to get feedback on their writing, and so on.

Everyone is entitled to perform a role, to offer a service and to get a reward. The size of which depends on one’s fortune, on what the performed role is, and, first of all, on what resources the community has available.

Don’t think by the way that it’s easy to be a millionaire, or a YouTube star, or a community leader. Focus on this: your role should fit you. Sometimes people mistakenly take high roles without having the resources, and it hurts back. You will pay a dear price for every incompatibility between the actual you and the role you perform, and if the role doesn’t really fit you, you will fail.

Or, as Plutarch put it,

We do not expect a vine to bear figs, nor an olive grapes, yet now-a-days, with regard to ourselves, if we have not at one and the same time the privilege of being accounted rich and learned, generals and philosophers, flatterers and outspoken, stingy and extravagant, we slander ourselves and are dissatisfied, and despise ourselves as living a maimed and imperfect life.

My approach is:

  1. Be yourself. Don’t try to figure out what they want, just be authentic.
  2. Find a community you really like and make connections with interesting people. And yes, be interesting, too.
  3. Take a role you’re capable of and offer a useful community service, however small.
  4. Be consistent. Someone once wisely said that the path to success is like a snowball, small in the beginning but growing steadily if enough effort is constantly applied.
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Writing

How to Give Feedback and be Heard: Use Nonviolent Communication

Often we are trying to help others with advice but instead feel rejected or misunderstood. It happens especially in situations where a substantial inequality is present: in the interaction between teachers and students, leaders and team members, parents and kids, and so on. The main reason is we think that our habitual ways of communication are also natural and effective, which isn’t always the case.

I’ve written this post as a continuation to How to give feedback on writing. In that post I focused mostly on feedback content, while now I’d like to say more about the form, which is equally important.

The Principles of Nonviolent Communication

First, let me introduce to you a few ideas of Marshall Rosenberg, the author of an approach known as nonviolent communication. Marshall Rosenberg was an American psychologist, teacher, and mediator who started conflict resolution programs in many war-torn areas throughout the world.

  1. The source of conflicts and misunderstanding in communication lies in the very human desire for autonomy. We want freedom to decide for ourselves. We can’t get rid of the desire for autonomy because it’s part of human nature—we only can respect it, especially if we really want to communicate, not command.
  2. Punishments and rewards are never reaching their goals, because they don’t respect human autonomy. That’s why the idea is not to try to get a person to do what we want, but instead to create a quality of connection based on mutual respect and concern where everyone’s needs matter and can be heard.
  3. It requires a shift away from the language based on evaluation/manipulation to the language based on needs. We need to learn how to tell others in a safe, guilt-free manner whether what they are doing is in harmony with our needs or conflicts with them.
  4. Human beings need empathy. They may want advice also, but only after they receive the empathic connection.

Many people believe that reward is good, as it’s the opposite of punishment, but in fact both reward and punishment are manipulative as they use power over others instead of empowering others. By using rewards or punishments, we try to influence others to do what we want. We need a way to help people hear one another, learn from one another, and contribute to each other’s happiness freely, not out of fear of punishment or hope for reward.

Communication Blocks

Below you will find the twelve «communication blocks» listed by Thomas Gordon, a pioneer in teaching communication skills and conflict resolution methods. I tweaked the examples to better reflect the writing feedback theme. Note how habitual many examples look and how well-disguised, sophisticated, hard-to-discover manipulations they are. If taken as advice, many of them are not wrong at all, but so often we don’t have enough empathy to base them on. So here’s the list:

  1. Ordering, directing, commanding: «Don’t do that.»
  2. Warning, admonishing, threatening: «You’d better not write that if you care about your reputation.»
  3. Exhorting, moralizing, preaching: «You must always respect others.»
  4. Advising, giving solutions or suggestions: «Why not to talk to X about that?»
  5. Lecturing, teaching, giving logical arguments: «If kids learn to take responsibility, they’ll grow up to be responsible adults.»
  6. Judging, criticizing, disagreeing, blaming: «You’re wrong about that.»
  7. Praising, agreeing: «I think you’re right.»
  8. Name-calling, ridiculing, shaming: «Look, Mr. Know-It-All.»
  9. Interpreting, analyzing, diagnosing: «You’re just jealous.»
  10. Reassuring, sympathizing, consoling, supporting: «All people go through this sometime.»
  11. Probing, questioning, interrogating: «Who put that idea into your head?»
  12. Withdrawing, distracting, humoring, diverting: «Just forget about it.»

We may believe that we use similar sentences with purest intentions, but have you ever thought about what the other person actually hears? Most probably, something along these lines:

  • «You don’t accept my feeling the way I do.»
  • «You think I’m not as smart as you.»
  • «You think I’m doing something wrong.»
  • «You think it’s my fault.»
  • «You don’t seem to care about how I’m feeling.»
  • «You don’t take me seriously.»
  • «You don’t feel my judgment is legitimate.»
  • «You don’t trust me to work out this problem myself.»

Alternative Methods of Giving Feedback

After reading this long list of communication blocks you probably ask yourselves: «So how to give feedback to people if we don’t use those habitual tricks?»

In fact, giving feedback is simple. We don’t need tricks or complicated methods, however it requires training to get rid of them. Paradoxically, in our critique-based culture we need to learn to be ourselves, be authentic.

The first, easiest, and most important method is to describe what’s happening inside you when you are reading the other person’s writing (or interacting with her/him in another way) instead of trying to evaluate the other side or give advice.

You can start with «When…» (here goes the fragment you give feedback on), continue with «I see/feel/think that…» and end with the description of your feelings or thoughts. Be careful: it’s very easy to slip into judging, so keep an eye on whether you really describe what you feel. Thomas Gordon calls this «I-messages» as opposed to habitual «You-messages.»

Compare:

  • «You are too verbose in this part.» (evaluation, You-message)
  • «When I was reading this part, I felt tired.» (description, I-message)
  • «When I was reading this part, I felt that you are too verbose.» (You-message disguised as I-message)

If we’re speaking about writing feedback, this is what we really want to know—what kind of movies are happening inside of others’ minds when they read our writing. (Of course, we also secretly want a wise one to tell us objectively the truth about our writing so that we could correct and conform, but the only truth is that nobody knows anything and we have to guess what’s going to work.)

The other ways of non-manipulative communication include:

  • Using passive listening (you confirm that you are listening without further action).
  • Using active listening (you emphatically describe a mental state the other person speaks from).
  • Asking open-ended questions or just inviting the other person to tell more.
  • Bringing facts, information, examples without advice or comparison attached.
  • Using metaphors and stories that illustrate what’s happening inside yourself.

Useful Books

Categories
Writing

Pyramiding: A Writing Technique Helping to Make a Text Richer

Pyramiding is a warm-up writing technique used at the initial stages of writing. It can be used to start writing on a totally new topic or to find new sides of a very well-known topic. In both cases, it will make your text richer in ideas, points of view, and details.

To describe a pyramid, we need to look at each of its sides, that is, to change a point of view four times. In pyramiding, we take and reflect on at least four different points of view on the topic in the text to develop it deeper and find the main focus.

How To

  1. To try this technique, take a small object which has at least four sides. Put it in front of you and write for two minutes about what you see. Then turn it to see another side and write for another two minutes about what you’re seeing now. Continue until all four sides are described. Your goal is to express as many ideas, thoughts, or feelings as possible. Keep track of time and don’t stop even if it seems to you that there is nothing more to write about.

  2. Now instead of a physical object, you can choose a topic, concept, or idea. Dedicate three to five minutes to each of the four points of view on this topic.

You can use the following prompting questions:

  • Description. What is it? What properties does it have? How do you feel about this topic?
  • Comparison. What else can this topic be compared to? To what other topics is it similar, and how is it different from them? What symbols, analogies, or associations come to your mind?
  • Analysis. What parts does this topic consist of? In what context does it appear? To what other topics is it connected? What are the pros and cons?
  • Use. To whom and for what purpose could this topic be useful? How could it be useful to you personally?

As a result of such a work, you can clarify your own position, discover new points of view, and try new directions of development. This technique helps to test how much a topic is rich in content, determine its most interesting sides, and choose a focus point. It can be used not only for writing, but also as a creative way to get acquainted with a new topic or generate ideas about it.

If you’re interested in becoming part of a writing group, let me know in the comments! I’ll announce the details very soon — stay tuned!

Background

Pyramiding is my modification of Cubing, a technique by Peter Elbow. I reduced the number of sides from six to four, converted a cube to a pyramid, and added a grid of four groups of prompting questions.

Categories
Writing

How to Give Feedback on Writing

The art of giving quality feedback is a tricky one. Most of us were taught by the education system to criticise, measure, compare, evaluate, express approval or disapproval, rate, grade, and so on. Unfortunately, this kind of feedback doesn’t help much when it concerns creativity. It’s hard to imagine how one becomes a better writer by being criticised or evaluated. In fact, this kind of feedback is sort of manipulative: we position the other person in a particular way and influence her/him by that.

The other kind of feedback is still very rare. It isn’t about our opinions regarding the other person’s work. It’s about ourselves — we just describe what we feel and think when we’re experiencing it, and there is no place for marks and grades, no right or wrong. This shift of the focus point makes a big difference. The other characteristic of non-manipulative kinds of feedback is empathy. We’re accepting that the other person has the right to feel and think in that particular way and are aware of situations in our own lives when we have had similar experiences.

In the context of writing feedback, it means I only describe what I’ve been feeling and thinking when reading the text and avoid critique, evaluation, or advice.

Here are some creative ways of giving useful feedback from a very inspiring book I’ve written about recently, Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow:

  • Note which words or sentences you’ve experienced as full of energy, true, powerful.
  • Summarise what you’ve read: quickly recap what you see as the text’s main points; then summarise them into a single sentence and then, into a single word.
  • Describe the feelings and thoughts you’ve had like a story: what you felt or thought first, what next, and so on.
  • Use metaphors if it’s difficult for you to explain your perceptions directly: if the text were weather, what type of weather? What animal or plant? What color, geometric figure, landscape, musical instrument, etc.?

There are many more ways of giving feedback on a written text. In fact, there are plenty of things one can learn from others’ writing. But let’s leave that for one of the next posts.

In conclusion, a few tips on receiving feedback:

  • Don’t try to explain what you wanted to say with the text and keep from making apologies.
  • Don’t try to answer to others’ feedback, just accept it.
  • Don’t argue about others’ reactions; everyone has their own vision and this diversity is necessary to give you a larger picture.

Perceive the feedback you received as a message for you to interpret, in the same way as your writing has been perceived by your reader.

If you’re interested in becoming part of a writing feedback group, let me know in the comments! I’ll announce the details very soon — stay tuned!

Categories
Writing

A Teacherless Writing Group: Why It’s Needed and How It Works

As I said in my previous post, writing is not just about getting things down on paper, but also about getting things inside the reader’s head. Writing is not something happening in my mind only; it’s also a transaction between me and the reader. But how do we know what our readers think and how they feel about our writing?

A teacherless writing group is a place where people share their writing and give each other authentic, constructive feedback on how the author’s words were actually experienced: sort of like movies happening inside your mind as you’re reading. It’s important to note that this is not about offering advice on what to improve in a text. In fact, advice helps in a very limited way, as everyone has unique personal histories, values, and modes of expression.

A teacherless writing group:

  • consists of diverse people.
  • brings together group members committed to writing and giving feedback regularly during a set period of time.
  • offers its members «impact feedback», answering a simple question: what happened in your mind when you were reading the text?
  • provides a facilitator who makes sure the group and feedback rules are observed.

A teacherless writing group helps make writing easier, more pleasurable, and more prolific.

The man behind the idea of a teacherless writing group is Peter Elbow, Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of several influential books on writing including Writing Without Teachers and Writing With Power.

I’ve been thinking about setting up such a group for a while. Previously, I conducted several writing workshops and online courses. Now I’m feeling it’s the right time. In the next post I will describe in more detail the kind of feedback that will be practiced in the group. Stay tuned!

If you are interested in becoming a member of such a group, let me know in the comments!

Categories
Writing

Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow

It goes without saying that writing skills are crucial for a blogger. Peter Elbow’s «Writing Without Teachers» is a classic book on writing which is still fresh, full of interesting ideas and useful advice.

This book is not about «good writing» and «bad writing». You won’t find there advice on grammatical constructions or usage. Instead, this book can help you generate words more powerfully and make better judgements about your writing.

Peter Elbow is one of the most notable proponents of freewriting, an immensely liberating writer’s technique helping to unlock the power of words. This approach is especially helpful to people who get blocked in their writing, and is equally useful for any writing, be it fiction, poetry, essays, or memos.

Peter Elbow considers freewriting practice the most effective way to improve writing. He offers to do freewriting exercises at least 3 times a week. The idea of freewriting is very simple: just write for 5 to 10 minutes without stopping, looking back, wondering about spelling, or word choice. I described the freewriting technique in full detail here.

The idea behind freewriting is that schooling has made us obsessed with mistakes. We are used to censor not only our words, but also our thoughts and feelings, which blocks us from genuine self expression. ‎ Elbow makes important distinction between writing and editing modes. Both are important, but not at the same time: write first, edit later.

The final part of the book is about the teacherless writing class. Writing is not just about getting things down on paper, but also about getting things inside our reader’s head. We need to understand how our readers perceive and experience our writing.

Basically, a writing class is a group that meets regularly and where everyone reads everyone else’s writing and gives feedback on how the writer’s words were experienced.

A very important point: a teacherless writing class is not about advice on what to improve in a text, nor about theories on what is good and bad writing. The most valuable feedback you could give is to show movies happening inside your mind as you’re reading.

Another influential book by Peter Elbow I highly recommend is «Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process». He himself describes it as a writer’s cookbook and it’s worth this title — take a look at it, too!

Links

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Writing

English Literature in Eight Books

Non-English speakers wishing to improve their English can’t miss getting to know English literature. But what to start with? In this short review, I’ve chosen one notable and characteristic book from each historical period. Check your knowledge of the basics and fill in the gaps!

1. 20th century: «1984»

«1984» is a dystopian novel by George Orwell, named the most characteristic literature work of the 20th century. Spoiler: no happy endings.

For those already having read this book, here are a few more options:

  • «To the Lighthouse» by Virginia Woolf
  • «Ulysses» by James Joyce (don’t try this book unless you’re really good in English or read it in your mother tongue)

2. Victorian era: «Great Expectations»

Most critics agree that «Great Expectations» is Charles Dickens’s best book and one of the masterpieces of Victorian literature.

3. Romanticism: «Songs of Innocence»

«Songs of Innocence and of Experience» is an illustrated collection of poems written and illustrated by William Blake.

4. 18th century: «Gulliver’s Travels»

This book, written by Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift, is a satire on human nature. It recounts the story of Lemuel Gulliver, a practical-minded Englishman who takes to the seas when his business fails and narrates the adventures that happen to him on these travels.

5. Restoration Age: «Paradise Lost»

An epic poem by John Milton, one of the greatest English poets of his time, considered to be his major work. The poem is based on the biblical story of the fall of man.

6. English Renaissance: «Hamlet»

A tragedy by William Shakespeare, considered among the most powerful and influential works of world literature. The role of Hamlet has been performed by numerous highly acclaimed actors in each successive century. «Hamlet» is also the world’s most filmed story, after «Cinderella».

7. Middle English: «The Canterbury Tales»

A collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer. The tales (mostly written in verse, although some are in prose) are told by a group of pilgrims as they travel together from London to Canterbury. Chaucer uses the tales and descriptions of its characters to paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time.

8. Old English: «Beowulf»

Probably the oldest surviving epic poem in Old English, narrated about a hero fighting monsters.

In Conclusion: A Few Hints

  • Switch between English and your native language to understand better the nuances and details.
  • Don’t start with old literature, it could be hard to digest. Start either with modern literature, or from both ends (my approach).
  • You can use the snowflake method: start with one book per period and then add more books.

And now, a question to you: what are your candidates for the best English book of the 21th century? Share in the comments section!

Categories
Writing

Freewriting before Christmas

What a luxury it is, to write with nothing specific in mind, for no one in mind. To watch silently how the fields spread out before my eyes, covered with the first snow’s silver, how the birds soar to the sky where my conscious «I» gives way to a voice that knows where the truth is. There’s a short stretch from Christmas to Easter ahead of me, before the sun wheel makes another turn. There’s room only for the truth — the truth about who I really am, why the world is worth living in it, and how everything is good the way it is. About Providence which keeps our paths safe, about our dreams which always come true, about the fruits that ripen when the time comes. About the Spirit breathing where he wants, bringing the power to heal, to liberate, to resurrect. About how God is the one who comes in the end, when everything is said and done. About the power which is always with me, with you, in between us. About the holiday that will come and we will be surprised at how we could not remember about it. When snow will cover the plowed land and all warmth will be extinguished, a star will light up in the sky. Then everything that happened will turn out to be good as it was, and every voice will be heard in a song that will never end.

Related Posts

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Writing

How To Keep Writing Interesting Posts For Long Time: Use Freewriting

One of the biggest challenges on a blogging platform is to keep consistently writing quality posts. The good news is that it’s possible, especially if we take writing not as a shortcut to making money or getting famous but as a way to keep in touch with our loved lifetime partner — our own soul.

Freewriting practice is liberating: you can start anywhere and you are not bound by any rules, you are free from self-censoring or secretly seeking others’ approval. By using a few simple tricks, we block our conscious ego from making judgements for a while, giving space to free expression and opening the flow of treasures hidden in our inner world.

Critical thinking is a very useful and necessary aspect of writing, but not all the time, especially not in the beginning of writing an informal, engaging text like a blog post.

What we really need to create interesting texts is to be interesting persons in the first place. And being an interesting person requires one single thing: being authentic — not rich, not glorious, not fortunate but authentic. Paradoxically, we need to be ourselves to be interesting to the others around us. This is what is our fortune, glory and abundance. Then we are free to build value others are willing to pay for and respect.

What is freewriting?

Freewriting is a writing technique helping to enter creative flow and get access to ideas and knowledge which are otherwise hidden behind the walls of self criticism deep inside our souls. Indeed, freewriting is a first basic step to improve writing.

The essence of freewriting is a commitment to write without any stops for a defined period of time. The goal is to get rid of self censoring and release the natural flow of words revealing our inner reality. it’s especially useful to those who suffer from a habit of constant self evaluating (which is often a consequence of unconsciously seeking others’ approval).

Freewriting is for me much more that just a helpful writer’s tool. It helps me keeping in touch with my inner reality. When I don’t care about being correct or well-perceived, I sometimes get to a deep, hidden spring. My words are flowing freely, and while I am just looking at them without any judgment, small sparkles of golden sand start suddenly appearing.

The instruction, simple as 1-2-3

  1. Set alarm for a short period of time (5 minutes is fine to start with). You can choose a topic or do without one.
  2. Write anything that comes to mind without any breaks until the alarm rings.
  3. After a good break reread the text and mark interesting fragments.

Important points

  • Write fast, without stopping, rereading or editing, for the time set.
  • Don’t focus on possible typos, on grammar, logic, or style. Your main job is to continue writing.
  • Use full sentences.
  • Write in full detail — describe textures, sounds, smells, but if you’ll be choosing between speed and detail level, choose speed.

Tips and tricks

  • Don’t try to make a practical use of resulting texts right in the beginning of the freewriting practice. At this point the most important skill is to get rid of self censoring.
  • If you can’t find the right word, don’t stop for it — write a word that first comes to mind even if it isn’t exact — you could easily replace it with the correct one later if needed.
  • If you can’t start writing, begin with describing any nearby object, for example your own hands.
  • If you can’t think of anything to keep writing, write about it.
  • If you are getting bored or feeling discomfort, ask yourself, what is the source of it and write about it.
  • If your thoughts are getting wild, it;s a good sign. Don’t stop, just continue writing.
  • When reviewing the resulting text, ask yourself how you could use some ideas from it to solve your current tasks.

Freewriting has been popularized by Peter Elbow through his bestsellers Writing Without Teachers and Writing With Power in 1970s and by Julia Cameron through her inspiring book The Artist’s Way in 1990s.

Interested to see how actual (well, slightly edited) freewriting looks? Here’s an example from my blog: Freewriting in a non-native language.

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Writing

Freewriting in a non-native language

When I practice freewriting, I usually start with listening. Sooner or later a word, an idea, an image pops up in my mind. The first sentences are often useless, but soon a powerful word comes, determining the direction of further thought. Does the same scheme work in my freewriting in English language?

The pale sun is faintly shining through the clouds, looking like a light gray circle, and in the same way my personality only barely shines through the veil of the foreign language. When I was writing this sentence, I was lacking some words like shine through or veil, and without them, there was no hint at the next step in my freewriting.

But there’s also another, much more important problem. I don’t feel the magic of the words in the same way as I feel it in my native language. So my main obstacle is not the lack of vocabulary knowledge, but the lack of physical life experience connected with words in foreign language. The foreign words still have meaning, but are neutral, aren’t charged emotionally. As a consequence, I get much less soul nutrition from my writing in a foreign language.

Paradoxically, I freewrite in English even faster than in my native language. I spend less time on evaluating my writing just because I am unable to detect all the content I could then find unworthy, and that’s good for freewriting, even if there’s more noise in it. In general, there’s less self-criticism and shadow in my English writing at the level of meanings, though there’s more of it at the level of grammar — sometimes I am feeling that I speak unclearly, lack the exact words or correct grammatical constructions. If only there could be a way to recreate in another language my inner map connecting words, meanings and feelings! But my thinking patterns are, like a message in a bottle, contained in the sea of my native language and I can’t get access to them from inside the other language. Or maybe there is a way to achieve it? The question is still open to me.