Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Journaling to Promote Healing (Part 1)

by Jessica Murphy
“An untold story is an unexamined experience;
without the telling, its significance is diminished or lost” (Downs 303)
          It sounds contradictory, but it’s true: Writing about disturbing experiences can promote well-being by helping us do the following:
  • develop the ability to identify, understand, and express our emotions and those of others
  • strengthen our critical thinking, self-assessment, and writing skills
  • cultivate a sense of control over and find meaning in our lives
  • reduce stress, negative emotions, and illness
  • boost confidence and encourage empathy in other
          Guy Allen calls this “the healing power of writing,” the way it allows writers to confront, understand, and overcome unresolved psychological and emotional damage (84). Not everyone agrees; Andrew Holleran criticizes the practice as only forcing writers “to relive [their] anxiety and depression" (qtd. in Nye 387). Some research does suggest that writing about emotional experiences may not benefit some individuals; one study conducted in Israel among PTSD patients found that participants who wrote about their experiences worsened compared to the control participants, an effect attributed to the "absence of cognitive and/or coping skills training" (Pennebaker 16).
          But the benefits seem to far outweigh the risks. This practice helps us develop “emotional intelligence,” the ability to identify, understand, and express emotions in ourselves and others. We become more capable of overcoming emotional inhibition, the inability or unwillingness to acknowledge our emotions. Not only does emotional inhibition cause stress and increase the probability of illness (Nye 395), but it also isolates us by creating a disconnect in communication and understanding (Pennebaker 14-5). But by writing about these experiences, we can process them, freeing up our attention to focus on more important aspects of our lives.
          Addressing these disturbing experiences is important because they affect not only our emotional health but our mental and physical health as well. A study published in the journal Nature shows that when we undergo intense emotional experiences, we release stress hormones that enhance our memory of the experience for “survival value” in case the same experience reoccurs (qtd. in MacCurdy 164). This explains why emotional events can haunt us for years. Grief, for example, can cause guilt, anger, loneliness, feelings of abandonment, and vulnerability, all of which can disrupt the stability of our daily life, including our sleeping and eating patterns. As a result, we invest energy into maintaining a sense of control, which causes fatigue when combined with disrupted sleep patterns (Bosticco and Thompson 256).
          If unresolved, negative emotions can damage our long-term health; individuals who do not resolve feelings of helplessness can develop “learned helplessness” in which they assume they cannot change situations. In these cases, unresolved trauma can lead to anxiety and depression (Bosticco and Thompson 268).
          Writing about an unresolved emotional experience serves two purposes:
  1.  It encourages us to analyze our experiences and choose how we react to them.
  2. It improves both our writing and critical thinking skills by requiring us to remember, analyze, and synthesize information into a clear, coherent narrative.
           Organizing an experience into a simplified narrative allows us to recognize patterns in our thought processes, behaviors, and overall identity. In his essay “Writing about Suicide,” Jeffrey Berman describes a course in which he asked students to write anonymous diary entries so the students could express themselves in a safe environment. One student found that his entries gave him “a basic awareness of how [his] mind operates” (qtd. in Berman 302). Complex events require more effort to examine and organize because they affect multiple aspects of our life; being left by a lover can affect our relationships, finances, self-perceived identity, and daily routines (Pennebaker 11).
          The writing process can also help us recover or strengthen our sense of identity. In her essay “‘The More I Tell My Story’: Writing as Healing in an HIV/AIDS Community,” Emily Nye describes working with members of a writing group at an AIDS center to analyze how writing about their disease affected them (386). Most stories included a "turning point" in which writers identified or created meanings in their lives. One member found that fulfilling his lifelong wish to become a DJ made him realize he still had the opportunity to achieve long-term goals, which boosted his self-esteem. Another member met a woman who stayed with him despite his diagnosis, which showed him that society still valued and supported him (Nye 403). By describing and analyzing their experiences with AIDS, the group members identified new meanings that gave their lives a sense of purpose.
          Once we examine an experience’s effects on us, we can gain control over our thoughts and behavior by choosing how to react to the experience. Part of the distress caused by unresolved emotional experiences comes not only from the events themselves but also from the individual's emotional reactions to them (Pennebaker 8). In the previous example, writing about their disease gave the patients a sense of control over "the drastic interruption of a life of meaning and purpose by an illness that often seems arbitrary, cruel, and senseless" (Hawkins 224).
           In another experiment, participants were randomly assigned to either an experimental group or a control group and told to write for fifteen minutes a day for four days. Members of the experimental group were told to write their "deepest thoughts and feelings" about the most traumatic experience of their lives and encouraged to connect their topics to their relationships with family members, lovers, and friends; to their past, present, or future; or to who they were, who they wanted to be, or who they were at the time (qtd. in Pennebaker 4). This encouraged the participants to reflect upon how those experiences influenced their thoughts and behavior.
         Most participants considered the experience "extremely valuable and meaningful," and 98 percent of the experimental participants said that "if given the choice, they would participate in the study again" (Pennebaker 4). In addition, students who often submitted weak academic essays wrote coherent, grammatically correct essays about their personal experiences, which may suggest that writing about personal topics provides an additional incentive to engage ourselves in our writing and improve our skills. Further, the experimental group’s participants’ visits to the university health center fell "drastically" compared to the control participants (Pennebaker 5).
           Other studies from around the world link this writing practice to improved overall health, including improved immune function, reduced pain and medication use among arthritis sufferers, improvements in asthmatics' lung function, and lower levels of depression in students taking exams. These benefits span across a variety of professions, classes, and racial/ethnic groups (Pennebaker 5, 16). Writing about disturbing experiences did upset participants for several hours after writing, but they reported feeling "as happy as or happier than" control participants two weeks after the study (Pennebaker 6). In another study, hostile and suspicious individuals benefited more than individuals who lacked these traits (Pennebaker 6). 
          Writing benefits us specifically because it requires cognitive processing. If the benefit stemmed from self-expression, then other forms of self-expression should produce the same benefits. Yet research suggests that only forms of self-expression that require cognitive processing produce benefits; neither using expressive movement nor exercising showed the "significant improvements in physical health and grade point average" as did the same activity combined with writing (Pennebaker 8).
          The cognitive processing that writing requires also produces literary benefits, such as strengthening our creative and reflective writing skills. Descriptive language, for example, overlaps with therapy: using specific sensory images requires the writer to remember details from their experience and thus bring the experience more fully into their consciousness (MacCurdy 167). The students who wrote diary entries wrote more than they expected, and their writing tended to be “insightful and eloquent” (Berman 310).
          Writing also enhances our ability to connect to literature and real-life contexts. Analyzing and discussing their experiences with suicide made Berman’s students less likely to romanticize suicide in literature than students in other classes, and one student wrote that the context of the diary entries and class discussions made his reading assignments seem “so much more real” and that he felt closer to Virginia Woolf than he had felt before taking the course ((Berman 300, 309).
          Writing about emotional experiences helps us understand and resolve disturbing experiences, but sharing our work with others benefits us, too, by boosting confidence and encouraging empathy in both ourselves and our audience. Hearing how other people react to emotional experiences gives the audience the confidence to risk writing about more personal experiences. For instance, when Berman read the anonymous diary entries aloud, the students showed an interest in and identified with the entries, developing collaborative trust or “distanced intimacy” (Berman 294). One student wrote that hearing his classmates’ stories makes him feel as though he were vicariously experiencing the events. As a result, whenever he sees his classmates, he feels concern for them even though he does not know which entry was theirs (Berman 303). Also, seeing his classmates’ interest in his entry made him feel much less ambivalent about attending class; the same connection might be said about the connection between depression, isolation, and suicide (Berman 302).
Writing about disturbing experiences can give us a greater sense of control and help us move from passive suffering to active healing (qtd. in Nye 411). By reflecting upon our thoughts, emotions, and behavior, we can change how we react to events and gain a better sense of control over our lives. As D.H. Lawrence said, “one sheds one[’s] sicknesses in books—repeats and presents again one[’s] emotions to be master of them” (qtd. in Berman 291).
For the Works Cited information, please refer to the comments.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why I LOVE being an IFW editor

by Sandy Tritt

On a whim, I asked our editors why they love being an Inspiration for Writers editor. I didn’t know what to expect, but I did get a lot of answers. Here’s who said what:

Rhonda White: Education--both learning and teaching—is an important part of my life. Editing and ghostwriting provide me with the opportunity to learn (through researching facts, information and materials for new books and novels) and to teach (by editing and analyzing manuscripts for my clients, as well as writing coaching assignments) what I have learned. Watching my clients grow as writers thrills me, and I celebrate every publication by one of my clients as if it were my own. It's incredibly fulfilling to help a client achieve their dream goal of publication, and since over 98% of our clients become published authors, this career path provides me with many reasons to celebrate! 

Jennifer Jett: I love every single part about being an IFW editor. I love the clients and the manuscripts that come across my desk. Those writers for whom I edit become more than clients—they are friends who keep in touch, and I love, love, love when they email me to tell me about their successes. As a writer myself, I love the craft; as a magazine editor by day, I enjoy the process of polishing a product to make it shine. I love to read, and with IFW, I am able to edit stories that fall into the genres I read for fun. Every manuscript is an opportunity to not only help a writer become stronger in their skills but to teach them about editing and industry standards, and I enjoy helping people. With IFW, I am connected to a network of amazing and successful writers and editors of all genres from around the world, all with different specialties. My access to them and their knowledge makes each project a learning experience for me, as well. Fiction has been in my bones since my childhood, and being a part of this incredible group provides me with the rare opportunity to exercise my creative muscle every day. 

Jessica Nelson: Though I haven't been with Inspiration for Writers, Inc. long, I already feel like a beloved member of the family. Everyone is exceptionally kind and supportive. My favorite part of working with these lovely ladies (and gentlemen!) is that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Every question is seen as a teaching moment, and they are not only more than willing to help you learn--they are always willing to learn, too. Knowing that I am part of a company in which the people constantly better themselves to better serve their clients makes me unbelievably proud. (Note: Jessica is our new college intern. She is an American Scholar at West Virginia Wesleyan College majoring in Creative Writing. Welcome to the family, Jessica!)

Stacy Tritt: Working for IFW (as an intern) while still in college was a great experience. It gave me the opportunity to use the education I was receiving in a work environment. Writing and editing are hard work. It takes a focused mind, a wealth of knowledge and more patience than I ever thought I could develop. Working in the "real world" now, the fellowship I have at IFW continues to push my education and development in writing and editing forward, long after walking the stage in my cap and gown. Hardly a day goes by without me learning something new about writing, publishing, editing and more because of the wonderful coworkers I have.

Jessica Murphy: I love being an IFW editor because it gives me the chance to contribute to the success and happiness of aspiring writers everywhere. By showing them how to perfect both their stories and their skills, I can help them achieve their goals and raise their confidence and potential to new heights. And as a bonus, editing helps me improve my own skills, teaches me about multiple genres and subjects, and often inspires me to write. I also consider myself lucky to have colleagues who give me these opportunities and offer both professional and personal support. Not many opportunities are as interesting and motivating as this one.

Sandi Rog: I love being an IFW editor because it’s an opportunity to discover amazing writers. I love it when I get the chance to help an author learn the craft, to teach them things that might have taken them years to learn. I love it when I get to help make their manuscripts shine. It doesn’t get better than that.  

Charlotte Firbank-King: I love being an IFW editor because I meet wonderful people from all over the world and in every walk of life. There are the friendly and kind people, funny people and sometimes, people who test one’s ability to keep cool and sane. I learn something from every type. I love to see people absorb all I share and then grow in the craft of writing. I love the excitement and challenge of a raw manuscript arriving, then working with clients to make it shine and vibrate with life. I get a special thrill from seeing my client’s manuscripts published. 

I absolutely love the editors at IFW. We share funny moments, we share our frustrations and joys. We share words, phrases or quotes seldom used and therefore new to us. We help each other with challenging sentences and argue endlessly about where a comma should be. We offer love and compassion when one of us is hurting. We celebrate when one of us has a book of our own published. We are like a cyber-family who supports not only one another, but our clients, who join our family for a period of time.

Sherry Wilson: I love editing for IFW. Editing gives me the freedom to make my own hours and thus, homeschool my four children, while still being involved in people's stories. Nothing feels better than getting lost in the world a new writer has created, poking and prodding as I try to find holes and ways to make it stronger. I love the excitement of the creative process as I work with a writer to help her create something that lives up to her vision of her story. Every day is different—every project a new opportunity. It is great to work with a wonderful stable of writers of all different backgrounds and interests. This way, projects get assigned to the editor with experience and knowledge of the genre and publishing trends. The stable of editors is small enough to be a personal experience for the writer, but the experience is wide enough to edit almost anything. And the support of the other editors means that the writer gets the best of the service and we editors get to learn and grow as we work. Let's face it, what better job is there than to read all day? I'm very thankful for IFW and the other editors who have become friends. It's more than just an editing company, it's a family.

If you'd like to learn more about our editors, visit

Our editors are the backbone of Inspiration for Writers. To make sure we have the best match between writer and editor, we provide a free sample edit for manuscripts over 20,000 words. We want our writers to be comfortable with the personality, style and expertise of our editors. For truly, the writer/editor relationship is a close one, and the writer must feel comfortable asking questions and receiving feedback. If you'd like to submit your manuscript, follow the guidelines at Thank you. We'd love to invite you to become a part of our Inspiration for Writers family. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Story Outlines

by Charlotte Firbank-King
A story outline should apply to anything one writes. My personal preference is to create a document called “Story Outline.” By all means, use a card filing system if that feels easier. Whatever method one uses, make sure it has all the character names, their traits, habits, hair color, eye color, occupation or other information and characteristics that define them.

Formatting: There are general rules to how one should format a manuscript. Find the one relevant to what one is writing and put that into the Story Outline file as well. It’s easy to forget when one gets carried away with writing.

Using the twenty-first century method—a PC—create a Story Outline document to make a chart of the things above, then incorporate a plot outline. When changes are made or forced, note these so that the plot can be remolded to fit. I say forced, because characters have a way of reinventing themselves as one writes. As the writer, one sometimes doesn’t like the character created and we change their role in the plot. Writers will understand this screwed logic. I think we’re all a bit touched in the head.

Research should go into a separate file. Either reference the book used with the relevant pages or the copied and pasted info from the internet or other sources. Be sure to put the link in or name the source so that one can go back to check validity if necessary.

As the author, one usually has the plot all sorted in one’s head. The reader isn’t privy to this head knowledge. What may seem quite clear to the author may not be so clear to a reader. A plot is all good and well in one’s head, but crafting it to read seamlessly and cohesively is a whole new challenge. Pay careful attention to which character is doing what. It’s dead easy to have the names, times, positions or places mixed, thereby confusing the hell out of a reader. A common error, as an example, is the character kneeling or seated in one scene and the next moment they are pacing or in a new place completely with no transition.

A mistake writers often make is having too much mystery and never leaving any clues. This can cause confusion and the reader is forced to remember too many things. Anyway, readers enjoy trying to figure out what is coming next. You score a hit when the outcome is a surprise.
Finally, use Beta readers. (These are non-professional people who like to read. They usually pick up character and plot flaws.) Then have the manuscript edited and proofread to ensure that it’s grammatically correct and makes sense—flows. If even one beta reader or editor says they don’t understand what one is trying to say, take note of the comments. Another method is to read aloud or into a recorder and play it back. It’s always possible the critiques are the dense ones, but not likely.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Let's Dabble in Drabbles!

by Jessica Nelson
I imagine your first thought upon seeing this post title is Awesome internal rhyme! I imagine your second is What the heck is a drabble?
Allow me to introduce you to the shortest form of short stories. A drabble is a story that is exactly 100 words. No more, no less.
“Why would I ever want to write a drabbble?”
Funny you should ask that. Here’s why:
Drabbles force you to write your story succinctly. There can be no extra fluff. Every word must advance your story. Every word must be carefully chosen to describe as much as possible by saying as little as possible, because you only have 100 words to play around with. That’s it.
Short stories, by nature, tend to be character driven. As the shortest category of short story, drabbles demand that you get down to the nitty-gritty of your character. You have to find out what makes your character tick and convey that to the reader in less space than most scholarship essays.
Since this is a short story, our friend Rhonda Browning White reminds us to keep these things in mind:
  •  One consciousness (point of view)
  • One central action
  • One major change in the life of the character
  • A single emotional impact
  • A single understanding
She also reminds us to “use our zoom lens:”
  • Focus on one specific moment in time and/or place
  • Start at the flashpoint—the instant when something is different
  • Focus on one simple plot line
  • Focus on one main character
  • Focus on one internal conflict and one external conflict
Drabbles are the ultimate test for a writer. It’s easy to tell a full story in 1000, 5000, or 80,000 words. You have all the time in the world to move your characters around and reveal who they are. To do all that in 100 words tests your very nature as a writer. As writers, we tend to be wordy and long-winded, waxing poetic about the sunset at the beach or the less-than-pleasant fragrance of our character’s son’s gym bag after a week in his locker. (If that last sentence had been part of my drabble, I would have used up a third of my available space.)
The best way to start a drabble is to begin as you would any other short story. Just start writing. Word vomit all over the page, and get everything out. Once that is done, we can get to the hard part.
Here’s my example:
          Kara clutched the gun in her sweaty palm, her trembling finger resting on the trigger. Part of her worried that the gun would accidently go off. A larger part of her just didn’t care anymore. That part of her played words on loop like a broken record, over and over again.
          I’m sorry, Mrs. Peters, but the insurance won’t pay any more. Unless you can find the money to keep up the payments on your own, we have to send him home.
          Her jaw clenched as she saw her son in her mind’s eye. He was lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by beeping machines and tubes that tangled all around him. His hair was gone, and his face was gaunt, but still he smiled at her, his big blue eyes shining with warmth and love.
          It’ll be okay, Momma. It will.
          An errant tear ran down Kara’s cheek. She sniffled, then lifted her chin and deliberately pulled back the hammer. “Put the money in the bag,” she said. “Now.”
 Not bad, if I do say so myself. There’s not an exceptional amount of plot going on here. It’s almost like a snapshot from a longer story, but that’s okay. You can still infer what the big picture is from this brief excerpt. Now, here’s the thing: that version is 170 words long. Not a drabble—yet.
Let’s try again.
           Palms sweaty, Kara clutched the gun in her sweaty palm, her trembling finger resting on the trigger. Part of her worried that about the gun would accidentally go off accidentally firing. A larger Part of her just didn’t care anymore. That part of her played words on loop like a broken record, over and over again.
          Words echoed through her mind. I’m sorry, Mrs. Peters, but the insurance won’t pay anymore. Unless you can find the money to keep up the payments on your own pay yourself, we have to send him home he can’t stay here.
          Her jaw clenched as she saw her son in her mind’s eye. Jaw clenching, she envisioned her son. Head bald and cheeks gaunt, he was lying lay in a hospital bed surrounded by beeping machines and tubes that tangled all around him. His hair was gone and his face was gaunt, but still he smiled at her, his big blue eyes shining with warmth and love.
          He smiled. It’ll be okay, Momma. It will.
          An errant tear ran down Kara’s cheek. She sniffled, then lifted her chin, and deliberately pulled back the hammer cocked the gun. “Put the money in the bag,” she said. “Now.”
This is what you’ll see if you use Microsoft Word’s Tracking Feature. It’ll keep track of your edits, and for our purposes, allows you to see just how much I had to take out and all the things that were rephrased. By keeping myself to a firm 100-word limit, I had to think outside the box to get my point across.
Let’s take a look at it without all the marks. Here’s the final product:
           Palms sweaty, Kara clutched the gun, her trembling finger on the trigger. Part of her worried about the gun accidentally firing. Part of her didn’t care.
          Words echoed through her mind. I’m sorry, but the insurance won’t pay anymore. Unless you can find the money to pay yourself, he can’t stay here.
          Jaw clenching, she envisioned her son. Head bald and cheeks gaunt, he lay in a hospital bed surrounded by beeping machines and tubes.
          He smiled. It’ll be okay, Momma. It will.
          She sniffled, lifted her chin, and deliberately cocked the gun. “Put the money in the bag. Now.”
Eureka! 100 words. Is it super frilly? No. But does it tell enough of the story that you understand what is happening? Yes.
Perhaps that Great American Novel you’re working on needs some bells and whistles. Truth be told, it probably does. But much like cars, if your story has an exorbitant amount of them, your reader will get frustrated. Use drabbles as an exercise in brevity and succinctness. It will greatly improve your writing and please your reader—and your editor!
Now, I challenge you to try it. Write your own drabble, and leave it in the comments here for a chance to win a 1000-word free edit! This contest will run until Saturday, July 12, at 12:00am Eastern Time. May the best drabble win!
And for more information about how to use the Microsoft Tracking Feature, email me at for a How-To manual.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What is a Ghostwriter, and Who Needs One?

by Rhonda Browning White

            I can’t help but hesitate when people ask what I do for a living. “I’m a ghostwriter,” I finally say. The reactions I receive are never dull. “Oh,” someone might say, “I love ghost stories.” Uh, no. I don’t write ghost stories. That is, unless someone hires me to ghostwrite a ghost story. Once a (rather rude) woman said, “Isn’t that selling yourself, like a prostitute?” Um, double no! Ghostwriters indeed write stories for other people that are (typically) published under that person’s name, instead of their own. But then, so do many journalists and newspaper writers. I recall the first time I had a story accepted by a local newspaper. I rushed out that morning to buy a few extra copies of the edition in which my story would appear. And there was my headline in bold print . . . follow by the editor’s name in the byline. “But that’s my story!” I wailed. “I wrote it!” Such is the life of many news journalists. I whined for a bit, but then I realized it was no different than when I’d worked as a secretary, composing professional-sounding letters for my boss, who would then sign his name at the bottom, as if he were the one who’d agonized over that brilliant marketing hook in the first paragraph. Like journalists and secretaries and a host of other professional writers, ghostwriters write to help other people. And believe it or not, we usually enjoy that privilege!

What do we write?

            As a ghostwriter, I’ve been able to write political thrillers, Christian romances, memoirs, self-help books, even a screenplay. A ghostwriter works with her clients one-on-one in whatever capacity is needed to bring even a germ of an idea into a full-fledged manuscript that’s ready to submit to agents and publishers.   

Why hire a ghostwriter?

            Until they actually try to do it, most people think it’s easy to write a book. They come up with great ideas. They can see some of the scenes playing out before their eyes. But once they actually try to write, they realize it isn’t as easy as it looks. There’s so many things they hadn’t considered—point of view, voice, character arcs, plot devices—the list goes on and on. Writing is a craft that takes years of study and even more years of practice.

How much does it cost?

            Ghostwriting projects vary greatly, and the costs fluctuate with the amount of work involved. In addition to writing, some ghostwriting projects require research, collation of data and facts, and confirmation of sources. A typical ghostwriting project costs in the five-digit range. “What!” you may say. “That’s exorbitant!” But is it? A professional ghostwriter may work from four to twelve months on one project, sometimes working more than forty hours a week during that time. Would you expect to make less than a five-digit salary for half a year of hard work? Probably not. If you’d expect to make it, then you should expect to pay it.

Who hires a ghostwriter?

·         Your grandfather. Yes, we’ll write granddad’s memoir for him, taking care to use his voice as we chronicle his life into a book his family will cherish for generations.

·         Your neighbor. Everyone has a story to tell, whether it’s the story of how they single-handedly fought off a bear, how they hitchhiked across America in the 60s, or that idea for a romance they’ve put on the back burner for three decades. They may not have the skill to write the story, but man, that story deserves to be told. That’s where a ghostwriter comes in.

·         Professionals. Doctors, professors, ministers, technology developers, business leaders, and others have information to share, but who has the time to devote to mapping out a textbook, a self-help manual, or a devotional? We do!

·         Published authors. Sometimes an author will sign a three-book series deal, but then get so busy with the book tour (or vacationing on their advance) that they are nearing the deadline to turn in their next book in the series, but don’t have time to finish it. A ghostwriter can help them meet the deadline (and help them keep what’s left of their contract advance).

·         Publishers. Yes, even publishers occasionally send writers to us when the writer has an excellent story, but lacks the professional skill to write it in a manner that is publishable.

·         You! What’s your story? Doesn’t it deserve to be told? Do you dream of seeing your book alongside others in a bookstore, or popping up on your Amazon feed? Give us a call today, and let’s discuss what a ghostwriter can do for you!