Reference Tools to Help You Improve Your Writing Skills
Strong writing skills are a must if you are to be taken seriously as an author. Whether you are a self-taught writer or highly-trained English major, you can benefit from polishing your grammar skills.
Style guides make for excellent starting points. Because it is available online for free, you have no excuse but to read The Elements of Style. Specifically for help with punctuation, utilize Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. Though the Associated Press Stylebook is more intended for news publications and the Chicago Manual of Style sets the standard for most magazines and journals, both guides can also serve as helpful reference points for authors.
Should you be the type of author who likes to figure things out as you go along, utilize Google Search. Not sure when to use a hyphen to connect words? Google: "when to use a hyphen to connect words." Feeling uncertain about your semicolon usage? Google: "when to use a semicolon." It's free, it's fast, and it's efficient.
If you're a heavy blog reader and would like to learn somewhat passively by being exposed to helpful, informative blog posts, consider following one (or more) of these grammar blogs:
- Grammar Girl
- Daily Writing Tips
- Motivated Grammar
- The Lousy Linguist
- Sentence first
- English Grammar (updates are available via a newsletter, Facebook, and Twitter)
- Grammarbook.com (updates are available via a newsletter)
Most word processing programs have powerful grammar checking tools. Should they not be enough, consider asking a grammatically-skilled friend to read over short pieces before running them. Alternately (or additionally), utilize a more powerful grammar checker such as Grammarly (which boasts it can correct up to ten times more mistakes than popular word processors).
Tools for Author Inspiration
Writing a book can be a nerve-wracking experience. There may be times when you just don't know what to write. Not to worry- there are tools you can use to bring back your creative mojo.
ExplainLikeIAmA on Reddit
Reddit is an excellent tool for writing inspiration. Though the site on the whole might be regarded as a general resource (thanks to the various unique perspectives and experiences you can discover via AMAs and AskReddit posts, for example), we recommend using specific subreddits, such as /r/ExplainLikeIAmA. Though this section of the site, redditors post prompts asking fellow community members to explain specific subjects as though they were other specific subjects.
For an example of how this section can serve as a fun tool for authors, see this ExplainLikeIAmA thread in which a redditor asks someone from the community to explain the rules of the playground as if they were a hard-boiled detective in a noir crime novel. Esther Harshom, a published author, provided a splendidly-composed response. If this section of reddit is a worthwhile tool for Esther, it may very well be for you, too.
Should you have trouble building up endurance as a writer (that is, consistently publishing a respectable number of words each day), consider joining 750 Words. This simple tool encourages you to produce 750 words' worth of writing each day. The site is entirely private- you do not need to worry about others reading the work you produce. This gives you the freedom to be entirely unfiltered. By working toward and regularly achieving that 750-words-a-day goal, you earn points that are delivered to you on a monthly scorecard (and more importantly, develop a habit of consistently turning work out every day). Nobody sees these points but you, but those points, along with the structure and safe environment provided by the site, might be enough to get you going.
Tools for Monitoring Your Reputation and Reception
Surely you will be interested in what readers have you say about you and your work. Two tools in particular will help you stay abreast of online chatter associated with your work: Google Alerts and TweetDeck. Both tools have the benefit of being free and enabling you to monitor online chatter with minimal effort. For an overview of additional tools you might use to monitor online chatter, visit our guide to choosing a social media monitoring tool.
Setting Up Google Alerts
We recommend setting up Google Alerts for your name as well as every title of your book. You might even set up Google Alerts for your books' characters' names, should they be particularly unique (and likely to incite online dialogue).
To set up your alerts:
- Visit Google Alerts
- Enter in the search query for a particular alert (e.g. your book's title or your name)
- Select "Everything" as a result type
- Select "As-it-happens" for the frequency with which you are to receive alerts
- Select "All results" for the number of results you wish to receive (though if you find that you are flooded with irrelevant alerts, you may change this setting later)
- Have the alerts delivered to your inbox
Once an alert is set up, you will receive an email every time Google bots discover a new piece of content that contains the terms you have chosen to monitor.
Using TweetDeck as an Author
Just as you set up Google Alerts for your name and book titles, you may wish to set up saved searches within TweetDeck. TweetDeck enables you to create customized columns showing feeds of tweets. Those columns may show tweets from people on special lists you have created, tweets related to saved searches, or tweets related to your Twitter account (e.g. from people you follow or @mentions of your Twitter handle).
You may benefit from creating saved searches of:
- Your name
- Your book titles
- Your site's URL
- The product URLs (e.g. Amazon pages) of your books
To create saved search columns on TweetDeck:
- Click on the magnifying glass in the top left corner of your TweetDeck window
- Type the term or URL you wish to monitor into the resulting search bar
- Select the type of content, users, and engagement you would like to monitor (the default settings make for a pretty good starting point)
- Click "Add Column"
Once your column has been created, you can opt to set up additional alerts (in the form of a sound and/or popup) so that every new tweet mentioning your name comes to your immediate attention. To do so, click the down arrow next to the column's title and click on the "Alerts" menu item, then check the "Sounds" and "Popups" boxes accordingly.
As we mentioned in the previous lesson, readers will be delighted to hear directly from you, so don't be shy about responding to others' comments about you, your characters, and your work.
It is, however, important to establish boundaries. If you choose to set up TweetDeck alerts, only leave TweetDeck open and those alerts running when you are not trying to write. It is perfectly acceptable to only open TweetDeck once or twice a day and respond to various tweets en masse. Should you feel self-conscious about responding to others' tweets all at once, schedule some. You can do this by clicking the clock icon (then selecting a time and date) instead of immediately hitting the tweet button when composing a tweet from the tool.
Free Tools for Formatting Ebooks
One of the few benefits publishers still offer is book formatting, but don't let that small perk persuade you to relinquish your creative control and sign a lackluster contract. Formatting your work so that it can be published as an ebook is far less challenging than it used to be thanks to the variety of free and powerful tools available.
Our favorite publishing platform/service-independent tools are:
- Calibre: In addition to managing many other e-book related things (library management, ebook syncing across devices, etc.), Calibre can convert many document formats (alas, not Word) into all major ebook formats; as an added bonus, it automatically detects details like a Table of Contents and chapters (for more information, see the full Calibre guide to book conversion)
- Aspose: Aspose.Words Express (one of Aspose's free utilities and components) enables you to convert several popular word processing files (Word among them) into major ebook formats
- BookGlutton: Offers a free HTML to epub converter
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