Here comes the science bit – concentrate!

Even if the content of your work hasn’t changed that much lately, everything else has, so your concentration might be less than perfect. These ideas aren’t rocket science, but recently they helped me focus on writing (and editing and translating), so I hope they help you concentrate on your work too. And if you don’t recognise that headline, or even if you do, here’s the story behind it.

Stop before you start

Try doing something creative and nonverbal before starting to write – thank you Kalpana Shankar for this idea. Play music, exercise, stretch or sketch, get a different part of your brain working. Whatever suits you.

Snack first

How much of your time is really spent working when you’re “working”? Some people use time trackers to measure this and split their day into chunks – the Pomodoro method. If you find getting offline and into your work very hard, try it. Writing in short bursts of as little as five minutes is called “snack writing”. It’s a good place to start.

If you can’t write it, write about it

You can approach writing in three ways: 1) write it (the project), 2) write about it, or 3) write how you feel about it. So you are always writing something relevant to your work – thank you Jo Garrick for this approach. It can help to a separate document for writing about your project, or a diary to record and reflect on your whole situation. Some people keep a distraction diary. Notice what’s stopping you getting started and you’ll find ways of dealing with it. If you speak Finnish, try these suggestions from Finnish authors.

Protect your ears

If possible, get yourself some decent headphones for talking online and to muffle the noise of other people nearby. Thanks to Thomas Nyberg for this advice:

If more people put on headphones, it might reduce the feedback on conference calls.

Any headphones without a microphone make things better for you, without making things worse for others, though they might hurt after hours of wear. You might need to turn down the volume – in your Windows sound settings you might even have an audio equalizer or tone control. On a Mac, you can buy tools for this, like SoundSource.

Smartphone earbuds may be safest and cheapest. Apple’s EarPods (the ones with cords that came out before the wireless AirPods) are comfortable for long periods for some people, depending on your ear shape. If your laptop has a TTRS connector, you could pick up the microphone on the earbud cord and it can be surprisingly good.

The best way to get decent audio is a made-for-teleconferencing headset, like the Jabra Evolve 40 Ms. USB headsets for gaming are often better value for money, show up as a standalone audio device on your computer, and usually have mute buttons.

Top-range noise-cancelling headphones like the Bose QuietComfort 35s are wireless and comfortable for long periods, but don’t often have mute buttons, so you have to mute them in your software. Even cheap Bluetooth headsets like the JBL Tune 500BT can work with microphones, but are not as comfortable for several hours.

Choose your sounds

Some people like to listen to and others like YouTube channels like Study Music Alpha Waves. I like classical music e.g. BBC Radio 3; I will pick a concert to listen to and write until it’s over (my favourite is the Early Music Show but that’s quite niche). Try the BBC’s special culture in quarantine programming, including Max Richter’s Sleep. (Thank you Susannah Goss for recommending writing to Max Richter!) Unlike the TV, you should be able to get BBC radio online wherever you are.

Lots of editors and translators love MyNoise; it is a fantastic app which allows you to enter a soundscape anywhere from an Amazon rainforest to the Irish sea coast. I have a few favourite channels and if I really can’t settle, I use this.

Enjoy the sound of silence

Increase silence offline when it’s noisy online: walk or open the window and listen to the birds and the wind. If you can’t get out of the house, take a break and go birdwatching in Scotland or Finland. Some people like to use meditation apps like Headspace.

Get moving

Make sure you move every hour. Don’t sit still for longer than that.

If you find yourself drifting online and into social media, it’s probably time to get up and move. I’ve noticed since lockdown that I need to move more and for longer during breaks, so I’m more likely to work for five one-hour slots than three to four 90-minute slots. In editor speak, “stet” means “leave it as it stands” and so a “StetWalk” is a walk when you get away from your text and leave it be. If you can’t get out for a StetWalk or want to save yours for the end of the day, try a StetDance. One song might be enough – or make a whole playlist, or go to your favourite radio station for a break. I use a mini trampoline and a hula hoop, too. Or go and do some housework for a bit and suddenly work looks more attractive again…

Stop in time

You can’t do more than about five hours of really concentrated work like writing in one day. If you do more, you’ll end up having to do less the next day, or the quality you’re producing will plummet pretty fast. Most importantly, now is not the time to push yourself too far, too soon, as Aisha Ahmad so brilliantly explains. If you quit while you’re ahead, you’ll be ready to start again tomorrow. Go easy on yourself.

Find your community

Thank you to the members of the Rowena Murray Writing Group, Wendy Baldwin and the MET Humanities and Social Sciences virtual co-writers, and the Ridge Writers Group, especially Chloe Wells, for your ideas and your friendship during my working day, and beyond. If you don’t want to write alone, why not set a time to talk about it with someone and write together?

Too far, too close? Write.

“To protect their own lives and health, people have to reduce personal contact to a minimum. Finland has been preparing for this moment throughout its entire history” tweet by Jari Tervo, Finnish author

This may be partly why I have found the last two weeks just fine at first, and then suddenly overwhelming – after eight years in this country and more than two as a citizen, am I simply too Finnish? As the social distancing intensifies, so does the social closeness. For an introvert, indeed a nation of introverts, it can all be rather too much.

One of our neighbours said that she has never seen the lakeside path by our house so busy. People are going for a walk or a run because they aren’t used to being cooped up together all day with a lot less to do. To be fair, it’s still perfectly possible to stay metres away from each other at all times – busy in this context means you can see a lot of other people, not that you’d have to, like, touch them or anything. It’s not the London park my mum described as “like Piccadilly Circus.” But in a context where the nation’s dream is a house by a lake in the woods where you can’t even see your nearest neighbour, where there are the same number of people as in Scotland in a surface area the size of Germany, it feels like a lot.

One of the comments on that tweet seemed tinged with horror: “a work skill for our times: small talk in online meetings.” (To which the author responded: “it’s called ‘very small talk’”.) And, good Lord, there have been far too many online meetings. All the teachers, from grade 1 of primary school right up to university, have switched to distance learning and classes online. My wife is having choir rehearsals online in the room next door to my office. I had my first piano lesson by video link yesterday, I’ve moved my book club online, I taught my choir board how to do a video conference call for our meeting last week… luckily I’m more used to it than most as I’ve been having yoga lessons on Skype ever since I moved here, and I meet other translators and editors like this all the time. But with more than one person doing this in earshot, you need headphones, and after using them for an hour or so you start raising your voice as if you’re going slightly deaf and it all feels so… noisy. The entire world shouting in your living room.

So I went to the forest, or, if you’re Finnish, to the happy place, the safe place, the oasis of calm. I was worried it would be busy too, but I picked my moment and it wasn’t. From friends and family in Italy and Spain I know we soon might not be able to even do that. And then being in a small flat, even with the person you love the most, will feel very close indeed.

But the closeness keeps us going.

The last state of emergency I just about remember began in 1981. My great-grandmother was in Warsaw then and we were in Wales. When she died, we didn’t know for a long time. Finland has been in a state of emergency since Monday, but a very different one, initiated by a government led by five women, four younger than I am, who I helped vote in, and I trust to do a good job. The other big difference between then and now is those video calls. Being able to see each other’s faces and talk is precious. This week, I’ve spoken to people I’ve not talked to in many months, even years. We’ve remembered what we really need, that closeness.

Finnish closeness might look different. We want to hear each other’s stories, and we will listen, we just don’t want to do it by very small talk, we want to sit by ourselves and write it down, and give it to the Finnish Literature Society to collect, and then they’ll all be stored digitally for us and we can read them later, when we’ve had the space and time to think and feel. We’re giving each other space and time to think and feel by asking for those stories in the first place.

So that’s what I’m doing. As soon as I heard about this project, I wrote and asked, do you accept stories in other languages apart from the national ones (Finnish, Swedish, Sami, Roma…)? Yes, they said, write in English if you like. By all means.

If you are in Finland and want to do it too, here’s the link to the KoronaKevät (“Corona Spring”) project. If you’d like the instructions translated into English, let me know.

And if you’re not in Finland, why not do it anyway? You can choose whether and how to share what you write.

As soon as I started to, I felt much, much better.

Retreat into Summer

Summer still seems a long way away, but it will be here before we know it, and you might be looking to carve out some more writing time when other commitments such as classes end. Kick-start your summer writing with Ridge Writing Retreats at our two-day writing retreats on Thursday and Friday 7&8 May and 4&5 June. I will be writing on those dates and hope you can join me.

Numbers are limited to 12 writers. Not sure yet? Read more about how writing retreats work in English or in Finnish and find out what people thought of our last retreat.

We are based in the Writers’ House, Kirjailijatalo in Jyväskylä and this summer we have planned a new catering partner: lovely local cafe and restaurant, Toivolan Vanha Piha, who now do home delivery. Since we cannot meet in person right now, we will meet online using Zoom.

Join us as and when you are able for just one or all four days. The cost of the facilitated online writing retreat is €30 per day +VAT and includes a resource pack to support your writing alone and with others in online community. Let me know if a whole day is difficult for you and we will work something out, whether it is a matter of time scheduling or cost: some student scholarships are available. When I receive your confirmation, I will invite you to join the community Facebook group and meet the other writers.

In-person retreats will resume as soon as we have the health advice that it is safe to do so.

Hope you can join us!

Sign up now to reserve a place or contact Kate, the facilitator, to find out more.

What do editors need to know?

Who is an editor? There are so many definitions. Journal, book and newspaper editors, copy editors, author’s editors, language editors, post-editors, not to mention the revisers and proofreaders. What do they need to know?

A professional body might be a good place to find out.

For British English, that’s the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), with its new name as of 1 March 2020. Before their Royal Charter was granted, they were the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. The CIEP carefully assesses members above entry level for their experience and knowledge of the editing process. For professional membership, if you haven’t worked for a publisher in house, this means taking an exam.

Now I love exams – I’m a girly swot – but it had been a while since I’d sat one, and, well, I haven’t worked in house for a publisher, so taking this made me nervous. What did the CIEP think an editor needs to know?

You need to know and abide by the CIEP code of practice and the UK National Standards for editing and proofreading.

You need to know what you don’t know, and where to find out. All editors have their sacred texts, but these are the CIEP ones:

Butcher’s Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders

The Oxford Style Guide (New Hart’s Rules)

Fowler’s Modern English Usage

The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors

I have the first of these four as an e-book and the other three online through Oxford Dictionaries Premium, which makes it a lot easier to look things up electronically, rather than riffling through paper when you need to find facts fast.

Riffling through paper is important too though. You still need to know how to edit a manuscript by hand, like they did in the olden days before tracked changes in Word. This involves learning a secret code, the British standard proofreaders’ marks. I had previously been put off by this, doubting I would ever have to use them, but being forced to learn BSI5261:2005 was a gateway a new, precise language that can express meaning unambiguously in minimal space. Which is what it is for. I haven’t got a tattoo, but if I ever do, it might just be one of those marks.

Besides all that, you need to know everything on the CIEP exam syllabus. You get two goes at the exam so my plan last December was to take it without overthinking it, see how I did, and try again if necessary. I was thrilled to pass first time, and become a Professional Member, and then in August 2020 an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading.

Whether you’re thinking about qualifying as an editor or working with one: it’s not as terrifying as you think. If you’ve been wanting to give it a go, why not try it?

Think globally, write locally – and save the planet?

I started facilitating writing retreats partly out of flight shame. Every year, I go to meet colleagues at several conferences all over Europe, which means a lot of flying. At METM19, we felt this had to change: translators and editors need to take more environmental responsibility. In 2020, I decided to invest most of my conference energy into somewhere I could walk to, in my town.

Which led to the Writers’ House. It’s an old wooden building, with resident writers living upstairs. I have had a desk here since the new year, so welcoming my first retreatants in on 23 and 24 January already felt like inviting people into my home. We were researchers, PhD students, and translators, authors of short stories, a play, a novel, and a new website. We were first-timers and old-timers: one person was on their fourth retreat.

Luckily, the group soon seemed as at home as I was, gravitating inevitably towards the kitchen. We had a constant supply of fair trade organic tea and coffee, and our food was almost completely vegan, made by a small local enterprise. Just before this writing retreat, the sad news broke that The Local Culture Hostel and Café was closing, but some catering students stepped into the breach – thank you Oppipuoti.

Meeting locally, our writers were global. We had come down from Vaasa and up from Helsinki, but most of us lived in Jyväskylä. Group members had moved to the university from the UK, from India, and even from Eritrea with ELFA within the last two weeks. We learned a lot from each other: it was a real pleasure to facilitate such a multilingual, multitalented group.

Writers at the end of the retreat – photo by another member of the group.

We reduced our emissions by going offline. Getting away from the internet and your mobile phone makes you phenomenally productive. Writing for five and a half hours a day is about the average maximum anyone could expect. But if you work like this, do you always manage to spend all that time actually on your writing, without checking your email and social media, but still taking proper breaks to eat well, move, and clear your head? I know I do not. Which is why I – we – need retreats like this for a creativity boost. It makes space to get that global thinking done.

On the first afternoon it felt like we were already making an environmental impact. In the warmest Finnish winter in a century, it finally started snowing.

If you would like to join us next time, let me know what dates suit you. See what this group thought of the experience below.

Footprints in the snow outside the Writers’s House after day one of our retreat.

What did writers think of the retreat?

I understood something new in the writing process.

Saavutin tavoitteeni ja ylitinkin ne, en odottanut ehtiväni kirjoittaa uutta tekstiä lainkaan.

Yes, I met my goals!

Writing in a different space really helped me.

I liked the facilitator’s time keeping, strictness. Her encouragement to create a friendly atmosphere and collegiality.

I liked break time tea and chatting, walking before lunch… we need activities which make you relax before or after writing time.

Kiitos! Retriitti piristi sosiaalisuudellaan ja loi uskoa siihen, että saan kirjoitusprojektini joskus valmiiksikin. Oli myös mukava huomata, että pystyn työskentelemään sillä kurinalaisella tavalla, jota retriitissä edellytettiin. Yritän toteuttaa sitä yksinkin.

In 2 days, what did we write?

The beginning of an academic article. I had only a vague idea of the theme, but it crystallized quite soon when I got to work. I wrote about 8 pages. More than I have written in months.

Kirjoitin uudestaan romaanin alkua, jonka olin jättänyt kesken monta vuotta sitten.

A conference paper from my article-based PhD and re-organized my academic CV for the conference proposal.

Revisions based on supervisor feedback on the first complete draft of a PhD.

The conclusion chapter of a monograph.

75% of the content for a new website.

Olen hidas työskentelijä, joten kirjoitin uutta tekstiä vain muutaman sivun mutta parantelin melkein kahtakymmentä sivua.

The whole of a summer school application, an academic CV and 2-3 pages of the theoretical framework of the second article for my PhD.

Want to give it a try?

First you write a sentence

When I started editing, I really needed help with the US style guides. Brits (except Scots) don’t learn the rules of our common language like Americans do. We are much more likely to make style choices because “it just feels right” and don’t really know why. The Chicago Manual of Style offers “workouts” to test your knowledge – the New Oxford Style Manual would do nothing of the sort. While I relished reading US writers like Lynne Murphy and Benjamin Dryer, and learnt a lot from them, next I wanted something closer to home.

So I read a writer based in Britain – the land of queuing, the home of the English Bible, Orwell and Lewis Carroll.  Joe Moran’s “style guide by stealth” had rave reviews, so I wanted to see if it lived up to the hype.

It did.

First You Write a Sentence does not take long to read, but it will burrow its way into your brain. I managed to stay focused on it for significant chunks of a weekend with the in-laws. Of course I crowed with delight when I agreed with what Moran was saying. One of my mantras is “who is doing what to whom?” and he is also a fan of Billig’s Learn to Write Badly. But Moran makes its point more succinctly: nounification is deadening and verbs liven things up.

One thing he does extraordinarily well is talk in pictures. The images he uses to make his point stay with you. Here are a few.

First, a very British one: adjusting the thermostat. Different kinds of verb have different levels of heat. So you can change the level of heat to make things more interesting. If it’s all scorching, readers will wilt. If it’s all cool, they’ll be turned off.

Then there’s the Wizard of Oz paragraph. It opens with a topic sentence, closes with a tell-’em-what you-told-’em sentence and in between, the sentences start: because, because, because… This is not Moran’s phrase, he acknowledges George Gopen, but it was new to me. Once you’ve heard it called that, you really don’t want to be doing it all the time.

Writers are surfers, using every sinew in their bodies to balance and move. Nobody can see what they are doing, up close, but they make it look easy. It feels simple (see the US cover of this book), but is not. The UK cover of this book feels more honest about what writing is actually like.

A writer’s voice is like a bird’s jizz – that impression that lets a birdwatcher know what bird it is, even at a distance in the half-dark. The jizz is on the sentence level; one sentence can be enough to let you know who wrote it.

Carpenters true things – they make them exactly level enough for the job. And a plain style is just that, trueing things, writing about them plainly to make them look true, which makes them true.

Popular orange vegetables (povs, if you work for the Guardian) are not necessary. Sometimes it really is better to say carrots. Variation is good, but you can overdo it. Repetition can even work in your favour.

If you want to get to the point quickly, you can skip straight to the end of this book, to the twenty sentences that distil the entire argument. Yes, I did that too. (Did you do that, reading this?) But if you want to change your writing long term, go back and read the rest. Moran does give great practical tips: read some one-sentence poems to see how they join things up; press return after every full stop to see whether your sentence length varies enough; audit your own words by reading them aloud to see how they sound. All these suggestions are slipped in without being preachy, not in bullet points but in a story about how words work. There’s a lot more in the book, but it’s worth ending here as it ends:

A sentence is a gift from the writer to the reader, one that should never have to be bought – with boredom, confusion, the duty to admire the giver, or anything else.

Two-day retreat at the Writers’ House

Our first two-day retreat will be held at the Writers’ House (Kirjailijatalo) on Thursday-Friday 23-24 January, 2020. This is the view from the garden, overlooking the old buildings of the University of Jyväskylä.

The house has some residential writers living on the top floor, and a sauna in the basement which we can use on the first evening.

We will have the whole first floor to ourselves, including two connected rooms for writing, a big kitchen, an outdoor terrace, an indoor winter garden (shown below) for relaxing.

Places are limited to 12 participants, so book early to reserve your place. Or if you’re not sure, drop Kate a line to find out more.


First day retreat at the Local Culture Hostel

We had our first day retreat at The Local Culture Hostel on 15 November 2019. Thank you to everyone who came along to try this out for the first time! We were in the meeting room, but the cafe is a great place to write on your own and refuel with vegan cakes and snacks. The hostel also has very reasonable accommodation and serves breakfast early – it is the perfect place to stay for retreats at the Writers’ House, which is just down the road.