Ask D.I.: Any advice on how to stay focused?

How to stay focused.

So you’ve sat down to write a book, or finish your thesis, or put together that big report you have to present on Monday. Knowing that you have to get some work done is one thing. But actually figuring out how to stay focused while you work? That’s another thing entirely.

Today’s question comes from Tumblr:

I’ve got a big paper due really soon and I know I’ve gotta get it done. But I always end up on Facebook or Wikipedia or reorganizing my bookshelf or whatever…Any advice on how to stay focused?

Whether you’re doing schoolwork or getting started on your Camp NaNoWriMo project, figuring out how to stay focused is the key to being successful.

Here are a few quick tips on how to stay focused:

1) Set manageable goals.

When you’re working on a big project (e.g. a novel, a dissertation), it’s easy to become demotivated. After all, the task can seem so large that it feels nigh impossible to actually achieve.

Feeling intimidated by your project? Try breaking up your big goal into a bunch of smaller, more manageable goals. Think about it like trying to climb a series of hills rather than scale a mountain: staying focused on the smaller obstacles makes it much easier to overcome the bigger obstacle.

Writing a book? Focus on finishing each individual chapter. Working on a college essay? Think about it as a collection of distinct sections—e.g. an introduction, two to three arguments, and a conclusion. Remember: focusing your attention on small wins can help you preserve your momentum and stay motivated to finish your project.

2) Be strict with your time.

Allot dedicated periods of time to work on your project. Be specific: rather than saying “I’ll work on it sometime after I get home from work,” say “I’ll work on it every weekday from 8:00 to 8:30.” Plug these times into your calendar. If you use digital applications like Google Calendar, set up automatic alerts to remind you when it’s time to start working.

Now stick to your plan. Don’t be afraid to say no to friends and family members who want to hang out during your dedicated writing time. This is your time—it’s okay to be selfish.

How to stay focused.
Technology can both help and hurt your ability to stay focused.

3) Cut out distractions.

Eliminating distractions is a key part of figuring out how to stay focused. First things first: turn off your phone and get off time-wasting websites. If you find yourself drifting into a Wikipedia sinkhole or taking too many Buzzfeed quizzes, try downloading productivity apps that help keep you focused. Software like SelfControl (free, for Macs) and Freedom ($10, for PC) blocks your access to certain websites for set periods of time. You can also try free browser apps like StayFocusd for Google Chrome and LeechBlock for Mozilla Firefox in order to achieve a similar effect.

The Internet isn’t your only concern. Try to minimize distractions in the real world, as well. Are you the type that works best in a noiseless environment? Go to the quietest space in your home and close the door. If necessary, invest in some ear plugs that you can use to block out noise.

Do you work best with sound? Play neutral songs like classical or ambient music, anything that doesn’t have lyrics or other distracting things that might refocus your attention. Alternately, try noise generators like SimplyNoise, which work by masking distracting noises with more soothing sounds.

4) Reward yourself.

Give yourself tangible incentives for completing your tasks for the day. Some people find that promising themselves fun activities can help them stay motivated to finish their work—for example, for every hour’s worth of writing you complete, you get to watch 30 minutes of TV. Others prefer more physical awards—a slice of cake after finishing that chapter of your dissertation, perhaps, or a new pair of shoes for successfully completing your presentation.

However, your biggest reward will come when you finish your big project. Think about how proud you’ll be when you finally submit your thesis, earn that promotion, or finish your novel. Reminding yourself why these goals are important to you can help to keep you motivated to finish the project.

What do you think? What strategies do you use to keep yourself focused and motivated?

Do you have your own question you’d like me to answer in a future post? Email me or leave me a message on Tumblr.

How to Outline Your Novel

how to outline your novel
Do you know how to outline your novel?

Many writers balk at the idea of outlining. However, learning how to outline your novel makes writing much, much easier. By the time you start writing, you will already have an idea of the plot structure and overarching narrative, making it that much simpler to get going.

And if you want to actually finish your book, knowing exactly how to get to your final destination greatly raises your chance of success. This goes double for everyone gearing up for Camp NaNoWriMo this year—trying to finish a novel in a short period of time is a daunting task, and planning your work beforehand makes it more likely for you to reach your goal.

In a previous post, I briefly discussed a few different ways to decide how to outline your book. Here, I’m going into more specific detail about outlining your book in a way that suits your style and needs.

What materials should you use?

When figuring out how to outline your book, the first thing you’ll need to decide on is what particular materials you’re going to use to do the outlining. Here are some ideas:

Document it. You can use word processing software like Microsoft Word to make bullet-pointed lists or spreadsheets like Microsoft Excel to make charts. Using cloud-based services like Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, or Evernote would allow you to have access to your outline from any device or location.

Write it down: If you want to go old-school, you can keep your outline in a notebook. (Moleskine journals are perhaps the most well-known brand.) You can use different colored ink pens to color-code your thoughts and organize your notes.

Draw it out. This is best for writers who think visually. Get a whiteboard or a large piece of paper and trace out your ideas in a non-linear way.

Post it. Put your thoughts on post cards or post-it notes and arrange them on a wall or bulletin board. You can connect each note with a bit of yarn (color-coded, if you like), making a web that can be shifted around as you need it.

Use software. There is a wide variety of different writing software available on the market. Look at product descriptions and demos in order to see what each software program offers so that you can more accurately judge if it might be right for you. Scrivener and PageFour are both popular choices.

Use whatever materials make you comfortable. A linear thinker might not be the drawing type, but are perfectly suited for making and organizing spreadsheets. Someone who isn’t tech-minded might not make the best use of writing software, but would be great at any of the more low-tech options.

And, of course, all of these ideas can be mixed and matched to find the mix of materials that best fits your thinking pattern. Find what works best for you.

What method should you use?

Another thing to consider when figuring out how to outline your book is what particular method you will use. Again, this depends on what best suits your own needs. How detailed do you want to be? What aspects of your story are most important to you? Here are some ideas:

Character-Focused. Are you writing a character-driven drama or a story with a large and diverse cast? Do you think more in terms of people than plots? This might be the right method for you. The goal is to understand how each character progresses during the course of the story. Make a list of all of the characters in your work and figure out how they fit into the timeline of the story. When is Person X introduced? When does Person Y die? When is Person Z revealed as the villain?

The goal here is to keep track of each character and use this knowledge to build your story. If it’s helpful to you, your notes might also include character info—e.g. physical characteristics, personality, background information.

Plot-Focused. This is for writers who want to keep track of particular events and plot points. You can be as broad or specific as you need to be. In my previous post, I discussed the “Act by Act” approach, which gives you a more general overview of the main events in the overarching narrative. There’s also the “Chapter by Chapter” approach, which is a more detailed account about what happens in each specific chapter. These methods tend to be best-suited for linear thinkers who like to make chronological lists.

Another method is to construct a timeline of each subplot (or “story thread”) that happen in your book. This way, you can understand how each subplot develops over time and feeds into the main storyline.

Idea-Focused. This is the most abstract method, perfect for writers who are concerned about shifts in tone in their book. For example, writers of thrillers or horror novels might be concerned about how tension is maintained throughout the course of the story. Switching between violence scenes and calm scenes helps to make the violence all the more distressing to the reader, since they don’t have the opportunity to get acclimatized to it.

If you use this method, think about how particular plot points feed into the overall emotionality of the book.

And of course, these different approaches can be combined into different hybrid styles. Borrow whatever elements of each approach works for you as you plan your book.

The final verdict?

“Outline” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. The key to figuring out how to outline your book is understanding what materials and methods fits your own style. Do whatever feels right.

What do you think? Do you outline? What approach do you take to planning your novel?

Ask D.I.: How long should a book be?

How long should a book be
How long should a book be?

How long should a book be? It’s important to think about the length of your manuscript, both during the planning stages and the editing process. Whether you choose to traditionally publish or self-publish, the length of your book will determine how much your work will appeal to a particular audience. But how do you know how long your book should be?

This question comes from one of my readers via contact form. An excerpt from his message is posted below:

I’m planning out my first novel…it’s an epic fantasy that will [have] multiple books in the series. The first book is already estimated to be about 800 pages. Is that too long? How long should a book be?

Well, the honest answer is that it depends. Expectations for how long a book should be change depending on your audience (adults? young adults? children?) and your genre (sci-fi? romance? literary?). The best way to figure out how long your book should be is to compare your work to that of similar first-time authors.

Why first-time authors specifically? Veteran authors (particularly highly paid veterans of the field, like J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, and, Nora Roberts) typically get a lot more leeway with their work. If Stephen King ever wants to publish a 200,000-word tome about goldfish, he could probably get away with it.

The same can’t be said for an author who is trying to break into the industry. As I’ve said before, submitting a manuscript that’s too long or too short is one of the fastest ways for a new author to land in the reject pile.

In this post, I’ll talk about the different factors that impact the expected length of your manuscript. These are general guidelines based on industry standards on word count and book length.


Most novels for adults are between 80,000 and 90,000 words. Indeed, most of the manuscripts that I’ve read that have ended up being accepted by agents and/or publishers have fallen within this range. While this can be your aim, you can give yourself some leeway of about 10,000 words on either side of the spectrum—70,000 words at the very minimum, 100,000 at the very max. Any more or less than that tends to place manuscripts in more dangerous territory.

Most published adult books (both fiction and non-fiction) fall within this range. However, there is some variation depending on your genre. Some general guidelines:

Science Fiction/Fantasy. Because these genres emphasize detailed world-building and complex narratives, books in these genres can run quite long. For high or epic fantasies or for hard science fiction, your book can be anywhere between 100,000 and 120,000 words. Low fantasy or soft sci-fi can be shorter—between 90,000 and 110,000 words. Compare your work to books that are most similar to yours in terms of plot, theme, and scope to see where your book might fit in.

Beware: Readers of sci-fi and fantasy tend to recognize that these books are longer than books in other genres. As a result, first time writers have a habit of overshooting, making their books overly long. If you’re book is over 120,000 words, think very seriously about editing your book in a shorter, more compact manuscript or expanding your book into a series.

Romance/Erotica. Stand-alone romance novels (especially historical and paranormal novels) tend to run in the range of 70,000 to 90,000 words. However, novels that are published as part of a specific imprint tend to be shorter. Research the publishers you are interested in submitting your work to so that you can understand their particular guidelines. (For example, this page lists the requirements for submission to any of Harlequin’s imprints.)

Westerns. These books tend to be the shortest of all the adult fiction genres, ranging anywhere from 45,000 to 80,000 words.

Remember that your work is going to be situated with other books in your chosen genre. In order to make sure that your book falls within the purviews of your field, compare your manuscript to that of similar writers. When in doubt, 80,000 to 90,000 is a good range that fits most genres.

Young Adult

While young adult books as a whole do tend to be shorter than adult novels, there is a great deal of diversity in the YA category. Anywhere between 50,000 words (at a bare minimum) and 80,000 words is fine.

There is, of course, some variation by genre. Coming-of-age stories tend to be on the shorter end of the spectrum—think Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Books that require a bit more world-building—e.g. adventure, fantasy, sci-fi—tend to be on the longer end of the scale. (Actually, some YA sci-fi or fantasy authors can publish work that’s as long as 100,000 words.) Familiarize yourself with books in your genre in order to make sure your own work is comparable.

Middle Grade (or “Tween”)

The length of middle grade fiction (or chapter books) depends largely on the age of your audience. Younger readers (between the ages of eight and eleven) might be more interested in books between 20,000 and 40,000 words. Older readers (between the ages of eleven and thirteen) read longer works, which can be between 40,000 and 60,000 words. Any longer and you’re in trouble.

“But Harry Potter—” you begin to whine. Stop. That series is the exception, not the rule.


Again, the length of your work will depend on the age of your reader. Picture books, which are intended for toddlers and early readers, tend to be between 300 and 600 words long. Chapter books (geared toward late elementary school and early middle school readers) tend to be between 5,000 and 10,000 words long.

The final verdict?

So how long should a book be? It depends on your target audience. Know what other writers in your category and genre are doing, and try to mimic them. You want your work to stand out from the crowd, yes—however, a bizarre word count is only going to make you stand out in a bad way.

Of course, these are only general guidelines, and plenty of exceptions to these rules end up getting published and admired. However, if your manuscript very far outside these guidelines—e.g. if your adult novel is much shorter than 70,000 words or much longer than 100,00—it’s time to be concerned. After all, while there may be plenty of exceptions to these rules, you should not count on your own work being one of them.

Do you have your own question you’d like me to answer in a future post? Email me or leave me a message on Tumblr.

How to Write a Novel Using the Scientific Method

How to write a novel

Writing is hard work. However, finding a structured writing method that works for you can help you write better, faster, and more painlessly. In this post, I’m going to explain how to write a novel the way that I write all of my academic and creative works. Because of my training in both hard and social sciences, I tend to write in much the same way I design a research experiment: by using the scientific method.

This approach allows to me to think of writing like a problem I need to solve, with established and logical ways of getting to the “right” answer. Additionally, this writing method allows you to view writing as an organic and constantly evolving process. By learning how to write a novel using the scientific method, your work will develop and change in new and interesting ways.

Of course, this writing method may not work for you. That’s perfectly fine. Try it out, and if it doesn’t suit your style, don’t be discouraged. There may still be elements of this approach that you can use when developing your own way of deciding how to write a novel.

Step One: “Make Observations.”

“Where do your ideas come from?” Most writers hate this question, for good reason. It’s an infuriating question that manages to be both overly simplistic and impossible to answer.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. For example, Suzanne Collins thought of the initial idea for The Hunger Games while watching TV one night, flipping between reality TV shows and war coverage until the channels began to blur together in her mind. Jules Verne saw an advertisement in a newspaper that offered tourists the opportunity to travel around the world in only 80 days, which inspired his most famous book.

When trying to figure how to write a novel, keep your eyes open. Observe the world around you. Talk to strangers. Read the newspaper. Go for a walk. Anything you experience can potentially serve as an inspiration for your book.

Keep a notebook with you at all times so that you’re ready to jot down any fleeting thoughts that come to mind. When you finally get an idea that makes you desperate to put pen to paper, congratulations! You’ve found your inspiration.

Step Two: “Ask a Question.”

Once you’ve found an idea that interests you, it’s time to start asking questions. Each “what if” question leads to another question, which leads to another and then another. This allows you to flesh out your initial idea and develop an understanding the general rules of the world you’re building.

Some examples from existing literature:

Fantasy: What if gods—all of the gods that have ever been conceived by mankind—lived among us? What if old gods of classic mythology were being threatened by the new gods of science and technology, leading to civil war? (American Gods by Neil Gaiman)

Science Fiction: What if humanity was at war with an alien race—and the aliens were winning? What if children were recruited and trained to fight the aliens? What if a child was the most qualified person to lead the humans in battle and defeat the aliens once and for all? (Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card)

Thriller: What if a gruesome serial killer has targeted someone wealthy and politically important? What if the only person who can provide information on this serial killer is someone even more gruesome? (The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris)

Keep writing these “what if” questions about your initial idea until you have about a paragraph’s worth of material .Remember: your goal here is to be general. At this stage, don’t get too bogged down in ultra-specific details.

Step Three: “Do Background Research.”

Now that you have a good idea about what your book is about, it’s time to do your research. You want to figure out how to write a novel that is realistic and plausible so that your readers can stay engaged in the material. This is true whether you’re writing a down-to-earth family drama, a high-stakes spy thriller, or an epic fantasy. The world you create has to make sense.

You should research locations, objects, people, and anything else that might come to play in your novel. Fashion, economic systems, climate, weapons—whatever might be relevant. You can use websites like Wikipedia to gain a general overview of particular topics, and quizzing experts in a specific field using sites like Worldbuilding Stack ExchangeMetafilter or Reddit can help you answer more nuanced questions.

Additionally, you should familiarize yourself with other books in your genre. Know what’s typical for novels in your field—know what’s expected, what’s subversive, and what’s clichéd.

Step Four: “Construct a Hypothesis.”

Here is where you start to provide answers to the questions you asked in Step Two.  Outline your novel—and to everyone who flinched at the word “outline,” remember that you only have to be as detailed as you need to be. A few methods of making an outline:

Act by Act. Many works of Western literature follow a basic three-act structure. In Act One (aka the Exposition), the main characters, the setting, and the overarching conflict are introduced. At the end of the act, some destabilizing event thrusts the protagonist into unfamiliar territory. In Act Two (aka the Confrontation), the conflict intensifies. This act usually ends with another destabilizing event that sets the stage for some final conflict. In Act Three (aka the Resolution), the overarching conflict is finally resolved.

To plot your outline using this method, jot down your ideas about what major events takes place in each act. This is a very broad way of looking at your narrative, and allows you to be aware of the big picture without focusing too much on specific details.

Chapter by ChapterMake detailed notes on what happens in each chapter. Make sure every chapter tells its own individual story within the larger narrative of the novel.  Keep track of key events and figures that have to appear throughout the text. You can go old school, with notecards or post-notes, or use apps like Google Drive, Scrivener, or Evernote to keep track of your notes.

Subplot by Subplot. Most novels involve the interweaving of multiple subplots that feed into the main narrative. One way to plan your novel is to understand how each of these subplots develops over the course of the novel. J.K. Rowling is perhaps the most famous user of this method; an example of her plot spreadsheet can be found here.

Remember: this outline isn’t finalized—it’s a hypothesis, not your final results. Your understanding about what this book should look like will (and should) change during the course of writing.

How to write a novel
Treat your work like a science experiment.

Step Five: “Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment.”

The preparation is over. It’s time to start writing. Where do you begin? Well, that depends on you. Find whatever approach gets your pen to touch paper. Some ideas:

Are you a linear thinker? Start at the beginning. Refer to the earliest parts of your outline and use your notes to begin describing each scene. If you get stuck, skip scenes or chapters as you need to; you can always come back later and fill in the gaps.

Do think more visually? Start with the scene that’s most vivid in your mind—the final confrontation between the hero and the bad guy, the protagonist’s first step onto an alien world, the moment your romantic leads meet-cute in a supermarket, whatever gets you the most excited to write. Write scenes as you get interested in them, and stitch them all together to make your first draft.

Plot out regular periods of time in your schedule where you must sit down and write. It can be for an hour at a time, or it can be ten minutes. It can be daily, or it can be every other week. What’s important is that you establish a routine that works for you—and then stick with it.

It also helps to think of your project as a series of smaller goals. Finishing a book is a daunting task, and thinking of it as a single big project can make you feel intimated and unsure of yourself. Instead, establish goals like “I’m going to finish this chapter” or “I’m going to write 300 words,” manageable goals that can potentially be finished during your allotted writing sessions.

Remember: this is your first draft. It’s not supposed to be perfect. What’s most important during this step is for you to establish a routine, follow your outline, and get your words out.

Step Six: “Analyze Your Data.”

You have a finished first draft in hand—congratulations! The first thing you should do: take a break. You’re going to need to approach this next step with fresh eyes.

It’s time to revise. Go back through your manuscript—some people find it helpful to print it out and mark over it with red pen, while others prefer leaving notes for themselves in a word processing program. Do whatever works.

Try to be objective, or as objective as you possibly can be. Pretend that the manuscript was written by someone else, and be honest with yourself as you read. On the artistic front, look for plot inconsistencies, uneven pacing, flowery language, and poor characterization. On the technical front, look for grammatical errors, run-on sentences, and bad formatting. Revise your manuscript and make any necessary changes. The end result will be a slicker, shinier, more polished draft.

But it’s not over yet: then, you should find beta readers. These are people who read your manuscript and provide honest, constructive feedback on your work. Friends and family members can be good candidates, but be wary of loved ones who might be scared of hurting your feelings.

Instead, you may want to find a writing critique group. Try Googling “online critique groups” and browsing the results—keep an eye out for a group that suits your experience level, genre, and interests. Your local library may have regular writing workshops, which can help you meet fellow writers who would be willing to critique your work. Current students can usually consult creative writing classes or on-campus student writing groups.

Revision can be a brutal, tedious process. Staying focused on the positive changes you’re making to your book and how much your manuscript has grown overtime can help to keep you motivated.

Step Seven: “Communicate Your Results.”

You did it—you finished the manuscript. What next?

If you want to publish your work, decide on whether you want to self-publish or traditionally publish. In the case of the former, start making a plan for how you’re going to format, design, and distribute your work. In case of the latter, start getting to work on building connections in the publishing industry and crafting the perfect query letter.

However, know that you’re under no obligation to publish your work. Share your book with a few close friends and family members, or keep it to yourself. After all your hard work, you’ve earned the right do whatever you please.

What do you think? What does your own writing process look like? Do you think that this method might work for you?

Ask D.I.: How can anyone pay for grad school?

How to pay for grad school
Do you know how you’re going to pay for grad school?

How the heck does anyone pay for grad school? As asked by an anonymous user on Tumblr:

I’m thinking about going to back to school but I’m worried about the cost. Just finished paying off my loans from undergrad, and I don’t want to do that again tbh. I’d like to hear your thoughts. How can ANYONE pay for grad school?

Grad school costs money—a lot of it. You will need to cover, tuition, fees, and everyday living expenses whilst also maintaining a good enough GPA that you stay in academic good standing. Easy, right?

However daunting it may seem, you can pay for grad school without going into ridiculous amounts of debt. Here are a few ways to cover your expenses without hurting your bank account:

Apply to fully-funded doctoral programs. Many PhD programs offer financial aid packages that fully cover the cost of school as well as living expenses. This funding can take the form of fellowships, scholarships, grants, research assistantships, and teaching apprenticeships. Research programs extensively before applying, and target programs that will help you cover the cost of attending.

Note: While some programs (like mine) offer the same financial package to all students, others do not. In these tiered programs, the most competitive students are offered the best packages, while the least competitive students are offered partial funding or even no funding at all. In this situation, a student who has been offered no funding should very strongly reconsider attending that school.

Apply for extramural funding. There are a range of scholarship, fellowship, and grant opportunities available that can help you pay for grad school. Check online databases—such as the one provided by UCLA—to find awards you may qualify for. Fair warning: these funding sources can be quite competitive, so consult with your research advisor or your school’s graduate student center to figure out how best to prepare your application.

Additionally, make sure you fill out the FAFSA. If you have a low enough income, you may qualify for need-based aid from your school or the government.

How to pay for grad school
Extramural funding can be competitive.

Work for your school. Even if research or teaching assistantships aren’t offered as part of your funding package, you can still apply to be a TA or RA. Get in touch with faculty members at relevant programs who might be interested in taking you on as an assistant. Comb through your school’s job board and subscribe to any email lists that can help you stay up to date on any open positions.

These academic positions usually offer tuition remission on top of a base salary or stipend, which is great for a grad student who is trying to cut down on expenses.

Have your employer cover the costs. Many companies offer to help employees pay for grad school via tuition reimbursement. Check with your employer to see if they offer reimbursement programs for qualified employees.

Even if there’s no established company policy about funding potential grad students, you can still potentially convince your boss to help you cover your expenses.

Save. If aren’t able to pay for grad school right now but know that you might want to go in the future, start putting some money aside now. While you might not be able to pay for the full cost of going to grad school, every little bit helps.

You should put the money in a dedicated savings account or 529 savings plan, separate from the rest of your money. This will help you stay focused on your goal.

Take out loans. If you really need to borrow, do so responsibly. Rather than looking for private loans—which tend to have higher interest rates and fees—target federally or state funded sources such as Perkins loans, Stafford loans, and Graduate PLUS loans in order to keep your overhead low.

However, think of this as a last resort, and be careful to only borrow as much as you need. This money is intended only to help you pay for grad school, not to finance a swanky apartment or a Caribbean vacation. Be frugal in order keep your debt level low.

The final verdict?

Let’s be honest: grad school isn’t going to make you rich. However, there’s no reason for your education to leave you destitute. Grad school isn’t the right choice for everyone, but if it’s something you’re interested in, don’t let the high price tag scare you. The main way students are able to pay for grad school is the same way they got accepted into school in the first place: by being smart, staying motivated, and planning ahead.

What do you think? What advice do you have for someone trying to figure out how to pay for grad school?

Do you have your own question you’d like me to answer in a future post? Email me or leave me a message on Tumblr.

Ask D.I.: Should you self-publish?

Should you self-publish?
Should you self-publish?

Should you self-publish? In a previous post, I briefly discussed self-publishing as a potential option for writers who would like to publish and distribute their work. However, how do you know if self-publishing is right for you?

Below is an excerpt from a question sent via email:

Do you have any ideas about traditional vs. self-publishing? I wrote a book a year ago that has been collecting dust on my computer. I’m thinking about publishing it myself…thoughts?

For some writers, self-publishing is a last resort. In this view, self-publishing is the “second choice” option, the back-up plan for when forays into traditional publishing don’t pan out. However, many other writers celebrate self-publishing as a way to maintain their independence and creative control.

So should you self-publish? Here is a list of factors to consider when considering whether or not you should self-publish.

          1) Cost

Typically, the only upfront cost an author faces when pursuing the traditional publishing route is the cost of postage for their query letters and manuscript submissions. (And now that querying has gone mostly digital, even those costs have gone down.) Should your work be accepted, publishing houses foot the bill for getting your work ready for distribution.

If you want to self-publish, realize that you’re now going to have to cover these expenses yourself. These costs include:

Developmental editing.  I strongly discourage independent authors from relying on their ability to self-edit. For your first book, it might be helpful to hire a developmental (or structural) editor.  It’s this person’s job to go through your work and find plot inconsistencies, pacing issues, poor characterization, and other artistic problems that might be hurting your book.

Copy editing. Even if you feel that your work won’t benefit the developmental style of professional editing, you will still likely need a copy editor, who will proofread your book for any grammatical errors. Remember: you’re a professional. A book that’s full of grammatical and syntactical errors gives the wrong impression to your readers.

Distribution. E-book distribution via online vendors like Amazon doesn’t have to cost you anything out of pocket, though they will take a share of your book sales. (This article from Publisher’s Weekly provides a solid rundown on the various distribution services available.) Want paper copies of your work? Services like CreateSpace will print your books in exchange for a percentage of sales.

Estimates for the total cost of self-publishing vary: The Guardian placed the cost at a whopping $6,000, though there are some entrepreneurial authors who have self-published for less. Admittedly, these steep expenses can look daunting to any would-be self-published authors.

There is, however, an upside: self-publishing usually pays out higher royalties than traditional publishing does. Publishing houses usually pay authors about 15% of total sales. Your agent will then take another 15% from what you’re paid, leaving you with 12.75% of total sales. To put it differently: say your book’s sales are worth $10,000. The publishing house will take $8,500, your agent will take $225, and you will be left with $1,275. In exchange for these low royalty rates, the publisher takes on all of the risk. If your book flops, you don’t end up getting hurt financially; the publisher does.

The aforementioned indie print and e-book distributors? They usually pay authors between 50% and 80% of sales. So if your book’s sales are worth $10,000, you’ll get between $5,000 and $8,000.

Should you self-publish?
Some writers see traditional publishing as a threat to their creative freedom.

          2) Control

Traditional publishing is a fundamentally collaborative process. Your agent will help you edit your work before they submit it to publishers. Your chosen publishing house will then appoint an in-house editor, who will help you revise your work further. This is great in terms of helping you create a work that is the best that it can possibly be.

However, there are some things—your cover design, your title, your marketing plan—that, in traditional publishing, you don’t have ultimate control over.

Self-publishing gives you more agency in terms what your book looks like, where it should be sold, how much it should cost, etc. Having that freedom of choice can be a very liberating thing. It can also be overwhelming, so make sure that you adequately prepare yourself for the amount of work involved. Planning is key.

The final verdict?

There are many upsides and downsides to self-publishing versus traditional publishing. What method you ultimately prefer comes down to your own priorities. Do you want less financial risk and a broader reach? Traditional publishing is your way to go. Do you want more creative control and higher royalties? Self-publishing might be for you.

What do you think? Which do you prefer: self-publishing or traditional publishing?

Do you have a question that you’d like me to answer in a future post? Email me or leave me a message on Tumblr.

3 Stupid Reasons to Go to Grad School

Should you go to grad school?
Should you go to grad school?

Should you go to grad school? That largely depends on why you’re in interested going in the first place. Make no mistake: grad school can be expensive, time-consuming, mentally challenging, and emotionally draining. As such, it might not be the best fit for everyone.

To be clear, I’ve had a great experience in grad school so far, and would be quick to recommend it to anyone interested in furthering their education. However, deciding to go to grad school without fully considering your own interests and needs is likely to make you burn out and break down.

Here are three incredibly stupid reasons to go to grad school:

          1) To hide.

Many potential job seekers who’ve been frustrated during their job hunt see grad school as a place to quietly bide their time and wait for the economy to improve. This is a terrible idea. Graduate programs (especially Master’s programs, which are commonly unfunded) are notoriously expensive, which is only going to make your financial problems worse.

Even if you are fully funded by your program, don’t expect to be able to keep your head down and relax. Here’s a description of a typical graduate program, as stated by a counseling student at the University of North Carolina:

“Other people decide what you will do when during daytime (and sometimes evening) hours, such as going to class, doing practicums and internships and fulfilling other duties, like assistantships. Your weekends will be spent on studying, reading, assignments and projects. Expect lots of group work as well, which will be challenging to coordinate with classmates who have similarly packed schedules.”

Sound fun?

Let me be clear: graduate programs require a lot of work. Without passion for your research and coursework, you will flounder.

Some of my students have suggested that grad school is a place where they can find themselves. However, there are many less expensive and mentally taxing ways of doing this. If you are currently a college student, visit your school’s career center and take a self-assessment test—the two most popular ones are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Strong Interest Inventory.  (Non-students and students at universities without career centers can purchase these tests themselves.) These tests can help you figure out what careers might be right for you.

          2) To make your mom proud.

So your parents (or your spouse, or siblings, or your Great-Aunt Evangeline) have always wanted you to go to grad school. And why not? They want to have someone with an MA and/or PhD in the family, and you want to make your loved ones proud.

However, as I’ve said before (and will say again): grad school is no cake walk. It’s a stressful and emotionally exhausting experience that requires a lot of work and dedication. Even with a strong social support network, the pressure causes many grad students to struggle with mental health issues like depression.

Grad school is much easier if you have concrete and passionate goals to work toward. But if you never had any real desire to get a graduate degree in the first place, the road ahead of you is going to be all that much more difficult.

Also, bear in mind that the average graduate student owes an average of $57,600 in student loan debt. In fact, 25% of graduate students borrow about $100,000, and about 10% borrow more than $150,000. Do you really want to get into that much debt for a degree you don’t even want? Really?

Should you go to grad school?
Do you want to be a college professor?

          3) To become a college professor.

In many academic disciplines (especially the humanities and, less so, the social sciences), becoming a tenured college professor is the dream. However, only about 1 in 5 grad students are able to land a tenure-track position, and that number is slowly but steadily shrinking.

Because universities are increasingly relying on adjunct labor, tenure-track positions are going the way of the dinosaur. Though it’s unlikely that tenured professorships will disappear entirely, there will more than likely be fewer of these academic positions available as time goes on.

This isn’t meant to discourage you. Obviously, many grad students can and do become tenured professors, and you might be one of them. Publishing articles, presenting at conferences, and gaining teaching experience will help you reach that goal.

However, be aware of the reality of the current academic job market, and have clear ideas about what other careers you might be interested in pursuing if academia doesn’t work out. (As mentioned in a previous post, career centers and online resources can help you find the right career for you.)

            The final verdict?

I’m happy to be a grad student, and don’t at all regret my decision to go to grad school. I’ve built strong relationships, done fascinating research, and been exposed to jobs that I wouldn’t have been able to get without my graduate experience.

However, grad school isn’t a good fit for everyone. If you want to go to grad school, you have to have to be ready to endure a lot of hard work, stress, and financial hardship. Be well-informed about current issues in academia—reading the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed will help. And, most importantly, have realistic expectations about what grad school will be like and what your degree will help you accomplish.

What do you think? What has your grad school experience been like? What other advice to you have for potential grad students?

Ask D.I.: How do you find a literary agent?

How to find a literary agent.
Looking for something?

So you’ve just finished writing something—a poem, a short story, a novel. You’ve revised it, shown it to friends, revised it, shown it to family members, revised it, cried, and revised it again. Now, all that hard work has finally paid off. You finally have a draft that you’re happy with, and you’re ready to start querying agents. But how do you find a literary agent in the first place?

The inspiration for this post comes from a message sent by one of my Tumblr followers, who has just finished her first book and is unsure how to break into the publishing industry. In this post, I’ll provide some general tips on how to find a literary agent.

          Wait a second. Do you even need an agent?

If you’re a writer of individual short works—poetry, short stories, articles, or essays—you might want to hold off on looking for an agent. Typically, reputable and experienced agents don’t represent work of this type. (Collections of short works are a different story.) If you’ve written a poem or essay that you’re proud of, try entering it into a contest or submitting it to a literary journal.

You also just might not be interested in traditional publishing. Self-publishing (formerly known as vanity publishing) has lost its stigma, and retailers like Amazon make it easier than ever to publish your own work without needing a middleman. If this is something that you want to pursue, don’t worry about getting an agent to represent you.

Step One: Research.

So you’ve decided that you do, indeed, need to find a literary agent. First, you’re going to need to make a list of potential agents. Start your search by consulting a broad market resource. Check your local library or search online retailers for any print market guides that might be available: for example, Writer’s Market (for the US), Writer’s Handbook (for the UK), and Canadian Writer’s Market.

These books provide detailed information about editors, publishers, and literary agents currently active in the industry. Note: these guides are typically updated regularly, so make sure to grab the most recent versions.

You should also consult online resources like Publishers Marketplace, AgentQuery, and QueryTracker. You can search these sites by genre in order to find agents who represent your type of work.

Another thing you should do is visit bookstores and libraries to find recently published books that are similar to yours in terms of subject and style. Check the acknowledgements page for any mention of an agent, and write that name down. This is an easy way of locating agents who might be interested in your work.

Step Two: Protect yourself.

Like many fields, the publishing industry is full of amateurs and frauds. The amateurs aren’t consciously malicious—they just don’t know what they’re doing, and could end up preventing you from getting your work to an interested publisher. The frauds are more insidious: these are con artists who are interested in fleecing aspiring writers for all you’re worth.

Check your list of potential agents against professional membership organizations—in the US, that’s the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). In order to join these groups, agents must abide by a specific code of practice. Because of this, membership in these organizations can be a good indicator of reputability.

However, this is only a general guideline. There are plenty of AAR members who regularly receive complaints of unethical behavior, and there are plenty of non-AAR members who are perfectly trustworthy.

One excellent resource is the “Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check” board on the AbsoluteWrite forum. Here, many writers discuss their own experiences with literary agents (both positive and negative) and provide warnings about unethical business practices. If you want, you can also create an account and post your own questions about an agent you’re interested in.

How to find a literary agent.
Write the query letter.

Step Three: Query.

After you’ve made sure that a potential agent is trustworthy and that they represent your genre at work, begin researching the agent in depth. Look at their personal website, their Twitter feed, their Tumblr blog. Agents will usually be very upfront about what kind of work they’re actively looking for—if you don’t fit the criteria, reconsider submitting to them.

Design and redesign your query letter using websites like QueryShark as a guide. And above all else, be businesslike. Silly query letters (e.g. letters written from the perspective of the protagonist) tend to end up in the reject pile.

Note: Do not query only one agent at a time. Occasionally, agents will request exclusive submissions, but that is the exception, not the rule.

Step Four: Wait.

I’m not going to lie: the querying process takes a while. Expect a four to eight week wait before you get a response to the original letter. If the agent then requests a full or partial manuscript, expect to wait another couple of months for them to read your work and decide if it’s right for them.

This part of the process is perhaps the most difficult and soul-crushing. The best thing to do while you wait for a response? Get to work on your next book.

What do you think? Do you have any other suggestions for a writer trying to find a literary agent?

Do you have your own question you’d like me to answer in a future post? Email me or leave me a message on Tumblr.

How to Start Writing

How to start writing.
How to start writing.

For many people, figuring out how to start writing is the biggest stumbling block preventing them from reaching their goals: of publishing a book, of winning a short story contest, of passing a class. Every project begins with an empty page, and filling that blank space with words can be daunting (especially if you have the wrong reasons for wanting to write in the first place.)

Here are a few steps to help you figure out how to start writing without losing focus or stressing out.

1) Get ready.

After you’ve decided 1) what it is that you want to write—e.g. a college essay, a scientific paper, a novel…even, ahem, a tweet—and 2) when it is that you want to finish writing it, make sure you gather the tools you need to write effectively.

Some people need to write in absolute silence. In that case, find a quiet space in your home or at the library where you can work effectively. Others might be more comfortable in the hustle and bustle of a busy coffee shop. Still others might need to multitask; these people do their best writing while watching a movie or listening to an audiobook. Do whatever works for you.

2) Plan it out.

Knowing exactly what it is you’re going to write before you write it can help you stay focused while you write.

Of course, how detailed this plan needs to be depends on the project and your personal preferences. For example, many novel writers make detailed outlines of each chapter. (Consider J.K. Rowling’s handwritten outline of the fifth Harry Potter book.) Others prefer a more casual approach, jotting down general ideas about what should happen when without getting too bogged down in the details.

Whatever style works best for you, try to have an idea about what your writing project should look like before you begin. It’s also a good idea to refer to your plan while you write and change it as needed. Remember: it’s much easier to make it to your final destination when you have a plan for how to get there.

How to start writing.
Turn off your phone.

3) Stay focused.

Set aside dedicated periods of time for your writing, and don’t work on anything else during that time. This will help you stay on track.

Above all else: avoid distractions. Turn off your phone. Don’t check your email or Twitter or Facebook. Browser apps like StayFocusd for Google Chrome and LeechBlock for Mozilla Firefox can help keep you focused on your work.

4) Take a break.

Don’t be afraid to step away from your project for a while. If you start to feel stressed or burned out, take a breather. Forcing yourself to work when you’re mentally fatigued will only end up hurting you in the long run.

Do you have writer’s block? Go for a walk to clear your head. Take a shower. Exercise. These types of activities can help place you in a meditative headspace that can help you get the creative juices flowing again.

5) Get a posse.

Writing doesn’t have to be done in a vacuum. Consider joining a writer’s group: your school’s creative writing club, your local library’s regular writing workshop, an online critique group, things like that.

This will connect you with like-minded individuals so that your writing isn’t a lonely and isolating experience. Your new writer friends will give you the cheerleading you need to finish your writing goals, offer you advice on the writing process, and can even provide valuable feedback on your work that can help you polish your work into the best it can be.

So what are you waiting for?

Writing can be a lot of work, but beginning is the hardest part. Once you’ve figured out how to start writing, the rest is cake.

What do you think? Do you have any other advice for aspiring writers who are just starting out?

Ask D.I.: What can you do with a degree in anthropology?

What can you do with a degree in anthropology?
What can you do with a degree in anthropology?

Graduation season is here. Good news, right? I might have expected my students to celebrate, to look at the fast-approaching end of their college career with excitement and relief. Instead, my students are just plain terrified.

This week, I received an email from a distressed student of mine who is graduating this year. An excerpt of the original email is below:

“I’m graduating in June and don’t know what I’m going to do after I leave school…what can you do with a degree in Anthropology? I feel like I’ve wasted four years on a useless piece of paper.”

My department does a solid job in training students how to be good anthropologists. However, we’re slightly less clear about what these students can do post-graduation with the skills that they’ve learned. No wonder my students are freaking out.

So what can you do with a degree in anthropology? In this post, I’ll unpack some of the options for new anthropology graduates.

          1) Go to grad school.

If you’re interested in research and further academic study (either in anthropology or another related field), this is the choice for you.

What can you do with a degree in anthropology?
Consider going to grad school.

When looking for a graduate program, try to find a school that 1) suits your research interests and 2) is a good cultural fit. Ranking websites like can help you get a general idea about what to look for in a high-quality program. You should then check out each program’s website and other online resources, like The Grad Café forums, in order to get a more particular idea about what each program is like.

For example: do you prefer a comprehensive approach to anthropology, or do you want a more focused approach? My program is well-known for its emphasis on four-field anthropology and interdisciplinary research. Other programs are much more specialized. Find the program that’s right for you.

For a lot of grad students, the ultimate goal is to become either a professor at a leading university or a paid researcher for an institute or think tank. However, teaching and research certainly aren’t your only choices. If you decide to pursue a PhD, you can consult online resources like VersatilePhD to identify other possible career options for postgrads.

          2) Go to professional school.

If you’re interested in continuing your schooling but would like to use your anthropology skills in more applied contexts, professional schools might be your best bet.

Are you interested in corporate America and entrepreneurship? Business school might be right for you. The GMAT assesses analytical writing and problem-solving abilities, not in-depth business knowledge, so MBA programs are fair game for anthropology undergrads without prior business experience. The same goes for admission to law school: no legal knowledge required.

Biological anthropologists can also consider applying to medical school. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a typical science major to get into medical school. According to Psychology Today:

While non-science majors generally make up less than 5% of the applicants to medical school, their admission percentage rate can be higher than traditional sciences—in some cases over 50%.

Admission to medical school requires you to take a basic set of fundamental science courses—e.g. biology, physics, and both organic and inorganic chemistry. However, these classes don’t have to be taken during your college career, so feel free to take any necessary prerequisites after graduation in order to be ready to apply.

          3) Get a job.

If you look for an entry-level job that includes “anthropologist” in the job title, you’ll probably come up empty. However, college graduates with an anthropology degree are often well-suited for careers popular with other social scientists.

Options to consider: marketing, public policy, social work, international development, market research, public relations…any careers that value critical thinking skills and an in-depth knowledge of human behavior would be a good fit.

Be ready to market your skills to companies who might not be familiar with the field of anthropology. To quote the American Anthropological Association:

When interviewing for a job, make sure you emphasize how your training in Anthropology applies to the position at hand…For example, if you want to work in foreign relations, emphasize how the international range of anthropological ethnography makes you well-prepared for cross-cultural partnerships.

It’s also possible to find entry-level positions that are more specific to anthropology, depending on your subfield. Archaeologists, for example, can often find jobs in cultural resource management. Biological anthropologists can look for careers in public health and ecology. Companies like actively recruit sociocultural anthropology majors with an interest in family history and genealogy, and linguistic anthropologists would be well-suited for jobs as interpreters, translators, or transcriptionists.

            The final verdict?

So what can you do with a degree in anthropology? A lot of things, really.

However, knowing what your next steps should be requires you to know what you as an anthropologist can contribute to the world. Your written communication skills, your ability to collect and interpret data, your capacity for analytical thinking and problem-solving—all will serve you well as you leave college and begin the next chapter of your life.

What do you think? Do you have any advice for recent graduates?

Do you have your own question you’d like me to answer in a future post? Email me or leave me a message on Tumblr.