5 Lessons I Learned at My First Writing Residency

In January, I packed my car and drove 12 hours alone from Florida to North Carolina. This was not a typical road trip, but I had plenty of soul-searching planned: I was headed to the Penland School of Crafts, a bustling art school nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

As I embarked on my first writing residency, I knew I’d be joined by artists from all over the country seeking a focused period of independent work. I was ready — or so I thought.

I had packed and repacked the car. I had checked out helpful library books for research. I had acquired plenty of snacks. I had obtained not one, but two new notebooks waiting to be filled with the fresh inspiration that was sure to come.

What I didn’t expect was to feel like a fish out of water, as the only writer attending during my two-week session. Being a lone ranger wasn’t a big deal. But I had no other writers to turn to for perspective, or for a boost of encouragement. It was up to me to forge my own writing path.

I made the most of my time at Penland and returned feeling accomplished. But I also learned important lessons about planning for writing productivity while you’re away from home.

1. The first few days will probably be a wash

Anyone who’s sat down at their desk and waited (and waited…and waited) for words to come knows the anxiety of not being productive enough during a writing session. This gave me some anxiety as I embarked upon my first residency.

A friend advised me to give myself a few days to settle in, both to my surroundings and my temporary writing routine. Of course, someone doing a shorter retreat or residency may not have the luxury of spending a half day importing their chapters to Scrivener, or avoiding writing by reading a book on Cold War-era bunkers, as I did. But I was grateful to have the first few days of my stay to putter around and get comfortable, not only with my space but with myself, and no other tasks to complete but writing.

Tip: Plan a few low-energy tasks to get you started in the first few hours or days of your residency. A valuable way to start your stay may be to read over the work you’ve already done, to remind you why you’re here — and what needs work.

2. It’s good to have goals

Here’s where my strategy of “ease into the residency!” has its drawbacks.

Working in a residency for primarily visual artists meant it was easy to say, “Hey, what did you make today?” to a fellow resident, and be shown beautiful works-in-progress at a moment’s notice.

When they turned that question back to me, asking, “What did you write today?” I would chuckle half-heartedly and give them a big toothy grin. Then I would change the subject.

I didn’t always have something to show for my day of work.

In my first week of my residency, my major accomplishment was figuring out the emotional catalyst for my entire story, and summarizing it in a paragraph. It was a huge accomplishment for me, but on paper, it didn’t look so massive.

My colleagues were still excited for my progress. But because I didn’t set any goals before I started my work, I couldn’t truly gauge my progress during this valuable time.

Tip: Make a work plan, however minimal. Whether it’s a set of chapters, a character development arc, or research for technical aspects of worldbuilding, you’ll want to be able to look back on your time and say, “Yes, I did (at least part of) what I set out to do.”

3. Distractions are everywhere

It’s natural for others to be curious about your work at a residency, and it’s natural to be curious about theirs.

But it’s easy to let those side conversations about your work, your life back home, your pets, and that one city you visited once derail your productivity.

An artist at my residency referred to procrastinating as “chasing squirrels.” Everyone did it. Some of us more than others. If you let distractions like conversations, social media, and fiddling with the coffee pot take over, and you’ll wonder where your day — or entire residency — has gone.

Tip: Set a writing schedule, even if it’s as simple as working two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. That way, you can protect those hours — and let distractions run rampant outside those limits without feeling bad.

4. You will hit a wall

Right when you think you’ve hit your stride and it’s going to be nothing but multi-thousand-word writing sessions from there, you’ll hit the wall. Stuck. Burned out.

It happened to me: I started my second week of residency with a super-productive day where I wrote several pivotal scenes in my work in progress. I felt like I was on top of the world.

Until the next morning, when I sat back down at my desk and…nothing.

The cure? A 90-minute hike on a cold, but sunny day fixed me right up. I knew I needed to clear my head, and when a fellow resident volunteered to keep me company along the path, I happily took her offer. Leaning into this opportunity for distraction helped me reset my brain and sit down at my laptop with clarity and confidence the next day.

Tip: Accept that even in a special environment, some days will be more productive than others. Embrace the ebb and flow of your residency and listen to your body, mind and surroundings along the way.

5. Make a work plan before you depart

Your residency might feel like a rush of creativity and uninterrupted writing. But you can’t take it with you — at least, not in the same form.

When I returned from my residency, I chatted with my mother on the phone, who asked if I had a productive trip. Then she said, “Now you’ll have to keep up the momentum.”

Again with the half-hearted chuckling and toothy grin she couldn’t see through the phone.

I didn’t have a plan. In fact, in the month after my return home, I wrote zero additional words. I did zero additional plotting. I felt inert, sluggish back in my surroundings, with a day job to attend to and errands to run.

The momentum of a residency is hard to replicate for writers who don’t typically get time and space to write.

Tip: Before you depart, make a plan for how you’ll continue writing when you return home. Sure, maybe life will require you to tone it down from 2,000 words each day to 500 three days a week. But setting expectations for yourself will help you feel motivated to follow up on your residency-facilitated burst of creativity.

My lessons might seem obvious to someone who has taken writing trips before. But for a newcomer who loves planning and reviewing agendas, I felt overwhelmed with lightbulb moments. Of course it takes planning and preparation to make the most of your time — just like writing at home.

Now, it’s a matter of applying those lessons as I daydream about my next residency.

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6 Automatic Editing Tools That Will Make Your Writing Super Clean

Have you ever wanted a magical editing wand?

Just imagine: A flick of the wrist would be all that stood between you and the end of editing your writing. No frustration. Minimal time investment. An amazing manuscript or blog post.

Alas, no such magic wand exists.

But we do have automatic editing tools, which are the next-best things.

Just remember that automatic editing tools are designed to make editing easier, not to eliminate the work completely.

Putting automatic editing tools to the test

During self-edits on my latest manuscript, I experimented with six editing tools, both free and paid, to determine which could be most beneficial to The Write Life’s audience. Besides being an author, I’m an editor, so I also weighed each tool against what I’d look for when editing.

Since editing, which is anything that improves your writing, has a broad definition, it’s not surprising that the tools I tried had different functions, from checking grammar and style, to eliminating unnecessary words, to identifying areas for improvement.

What you want your editing tool to do will influence which one(s) you choose. No one tool can do it all — nor can one of these tools wave away the work and critical thinking necessary for a well-edited book.

An automatic editing tool doesn’t replace a human editor. Because language rules and elements of a good story can be so flexible, human eyes will always be superior to the rigidity of automatic tools.

Here are those six tools, broken into three categories based on function.

[Editor’s note: Some companies offered free access to the paid versions of their tools for the purposes of this post, but all opinions are the writer’s.]

Check your grammar and style

Sometimes, you just want to make sure you’re not making any silly spelling or grammar mistakes.

1. Grammarly

What It Does: Grammarly is a grammar checker and proofreader.

Price: $29.95 per month, $59.95 per quarter or $139.95 per year for premium service. A limited version is available for free, and Grammarly also offers a number of other free services such as a plagiarism checker and various plug-ins.

Who It’s For: Anyone, though most useful for corporate business people and academics.

How It Works:  Copy and paste or upload your text into the online dashboard and let Grammarly work its magic. It flags potential errors, gives suggestions and provides an explanation if you need it. There is also a free Grammarly Add-in available for Microsoft Word, along with a plug-in for web browsers.

The Best Part: Grammarly is easy to use and pointed out a vocabulary issue or two that none of the other tools did. It’s superior to Microsoft Word’s grammar checker.

What Would Make It Better: As an editor, I’ve found that many people don’t understand or care to learn the technical explanation for why something’s wrong. Plain language (or as plain as you can get) explanations for mistakes would make it accessible to more writers.

Our Recommendation: Grammarly is best for the final proofreading stage, or for people who want to learn more about the technical aspects grammar. If you’re an editor or strong writer, you might find yourself ignoring more flagged items than you fix.

2. ProWritingAid

What It Does: ProWritingAid analyzes your writing and produces reports on areas such as overused words, writing style, sentence length, grammar and repeated words and phrases.

Price:  Enjoy limited use of the tool for free, or upgrade to the premium membership to edit where you work (i.e., in Google Docs or MS Word), access a desktop app and Chrome add-ins, and — best of all — lose the word-count cap. A year’s membership is $60, but you can get two years for $90, three for $120, or go whole hog and buy a lifetime membership for $210.

Who It’s For: Anyone

How It Works: Click on “Editing Tool,” create a free account, then paste in your text.

The Best Part: ProWritingAid delivers similar results to AutoCrit, and though ProWritingAid has a premium option, most of the areas you’ll want checked are available for free.

What Would Make It Better:  Though ProWritingAid checks grammar, I slipped in a your/you’re mistake without getting flagged. I wasn’t overly fond of the website design, but its overall functionality is hard to argue with.

Our Recommendation: Use ProWritingAid in the self-editing stage to guide your edits. It may not be as comprehensive as AutoCrit, but for a free tool, it’s a decent contender.

3. After the Deadline

What It Does: Like Grammarly, After the Deadline is a grammar checker.

Price: Free for personal use

Who It’s For: Anyone

How It Works: Click “Demonstration,” paste the text you want to check, and click “Check Writing.” After the Deadline underlines any potential issues and explains its reasoning.

The Best Part: It’s free! You can also use it on your self-hosted WordPress site, as an extension or add-on for Chrome or Firefox, or with OpenOffice.org.

What Would Make It Better: A definition of passive voice that explains how you construct it grammatically. After the Deadline rightly explains what passive voice does, but it seems to focus only on the “be” verb, which occasionally leads to falsely labeling non-passive constructions as passive.

Our Recommendation: You get what you pay for with After the Deadline. Use it for a final proofread, but exercise good judgment and don’t make every change it suggests — it’s not as sophisticated as Grammarly.

Improve your writing

If you’re looking for a critique that goes a bit deeper, try one of these options.

Which automatic editing tool is best for writers? We tested six popular options.

4. AutoCrit

What It Does: AutoCrit analyzes your manuscript to identify areas for improvement, including pacing and momentum, dialogue, strong writing, word choice and repetition. Depending on what level you choose, you can also compare your writing to that of popular authors like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King.

Price:  Three different levels are available: the “basic” for $10 per month, the “professional” for $30, or the Elite for $80 per month. (Both of the latter offer a 14-day trial for $1.)

Who It’s For: Fiction writers

How It Works: Paste your text into the online dashboard or upload a document and click on AutoCrit’s tabs to see their analysis.

The Best Part: I spent the most time in “Compare to Fiction” tab, which is a comprehensive look at common issues. It highlighted my tendency to start sentences with “and” and “but,” and identified my most repeated words. I felt like I learned something about my writing, and that’s something I don’t think I could say about the other tools.

What Would Make It Better: A more accurate definition of passive voice. It highlights any use of the “be” and “had” verbs, neither of which fully capture passive voice (you need a past participle in addition to a “be” verb), and many active voice constructions were falsely labeled as passive.

Our Recommendation: AutoCrit is great to guide your edits in the self-editing stage. It’s best used for developmental edits, rewrites and avoiding common writing no-nos.

5. Hemingway App

What It Does: Hemingway App provides a readability score — the lowest grade level someone would need to understand the text — and analyzes your writing to identify areas for improvement.

Price:  Free online, $19.99 for the desktop version (available for both Mac and PC)

Who It’s For: Anyone

How It Works: Paste your text into the dashboard and scan for highlighted sections of text. The highlighted text is color coded depending on your area of improvement, whether it’s hard-to-read sentences, the presence of adverbs, or passive voice.

The Best Part: In addition to providing examples on how to fix passive voice or complex phrases, Hemingway App also identifies how many “-ly” adverbs and passive voice constructions you have and suggests a maximum number to use based on your word count.

In my prologue, for example, I had one use of passive voice, and Hemingway App suggested aiming for six uses or fewer — which I nailed. These recommendations reinforce the idea that not all adverbs or passive voice constructions are bad, and that’s something other tools miss.

What Would Make It Better: Hemingway App was the cleanest and easiest to use of the free editing tools, but it’s not a grammar checker or proofreader. Even though it’s not meant to catch grammar and spelling mistakes, any editing application that catches those mistakes is instantly more attractive.

Our Recommendation: Use Hemingway App to increase the readability of your writing and identify problem sentences during the copyediting stage, but supplement your efforts with a grammar and spell checker.

Eliminate word fluff

Those unnecessary words and phrases are getting in your story’s way.

6. WordRake

What It Does: WordRake cuts out the unnecessary words or phrases that creep into your writing. It works with Microsoft Word and Outlook, depending on which license you purchase. I tested the Microsoft Word version.

Price:  The Microsoft Word version is available for Mac or Windows, and you can pay $129 for a year or $259 for three years. The Microsoft Word and Outlook package version is only available for Windows, and it costs $199 for a year or $399 for three.

Who It’s For: Bloggers, authors and editors using Microsoft Word or Outlook

How It Works: WordRake is an add-in for Microsoft products and requires you to install the program before using it, though it’s as easy as following the instructions. Select the text you want to edit, then use the WordRake add-in. It uses track changes to suggest edits, which you can accept or reject.

The Best Part: WordRake is as close as you can get to an automatic editor. It appealed to me more as an editor than writer, but it’s great at eliminating unnecessary phrases and words — and it’s those words that bog down your writing.

What Would Make It Better: I threw a your/you’re mistake in to see if WordRake would catch it. It didn’t, even though Microsoft Word flagged it. If WordRake could catch common writing mistakes like your/you’re or their/they’re/there in addition to unnecessary words, it’d be a hard tool to beat.

Our Recommendation: WordRake is a great tool for the copyediting stage. Verbose writers, authors wanting to cut down on editing costs or editors looking to speed up their editing process will most benefit from WordRake. Watch out if you’re running Word on a slow computer: WordRake increases your load time.

Do you use one of these editing tools or something else? What’s been your experience with automatic editing tools?

This post contains affiliate links. That means if you purchase through our links, you’re supporting The Write Life — and we thank you for that!

This post was updated in January 2019 so it’s more useful and relevant for our readers! It was originally written by Amanda Shofner and updated by The Write Life team. 

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