The Squaw Valley Community of Writers

Squaw Valley Community of Writers

Four writers I fell in love with (left to right): Kirstin Valdez Quade, Tom Barbash, Peter Orner and Elizabeth Tallent, with Zzyva editor Oscar Villalon

I am exhausted. In the past month I’ve slept at home, in my own bed for only four days. It’s my own fault. I planned this summer’s schedule, but honestly, when I did, I didn’t expect to get into the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. I had applied before and not been invited, so I didn’t bother planning my summer around it. So when I did get in (high five!) I had to rearrange my plans and things got a little hectic. I regret nothing.

In case you’re unfamiliar, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers is a conference. Every day starts with writing workshops. After a lunch break, participants come together for craft talks, panels, and readings. Basically, as a participant, you start with your workshop group at 8:30am, eat, then get back to learning and absorbing until well after dark when the authors do readings under the stars. Then you race home to read and make notes for the next morning’s workshop. It’s a marathon of a week. Not for the faint at heart.

Squaw Valley Community of Writers

Edan Lepucki reading early in the week.

I learned so much, and met some amazing writers, but since I usually try to keep things focused on the practical here, I thought I would share a few things I learned (or learned again) about workshopping. These ideas apply to anyone giving or receiving feedback on their work, so don’t feel like you have to go to a conference to use them. Just grab a writing buddy and start helping each other out.

Here they are:

1. Before giving feedback, read the work at least twice. The first time through, just read. Don’t even hold your pen. If you can, take a break after the first read, then come back with your pen and set to work.

2. Aim for four comments/notes per page. I like to put check marks next to things that work for me, and sometimes that’s all I have on a page, but it can be hard to get feedback, so hearing about what works is just as important as hearing about what doesn’t.

3. Don’t push your own expectations onto the story. Pretend you’re reading the New Yorker. If you don’t understand it, consider that maybe it’s you. Maybe you’re not getting what the author is going for. Maybe they are jumping POVs on purpose, or slipping around in time to represent a character’s state of mind. Don’t be too quick to judge.

4. If you get conflicting feedback from readers, see it as a sign that something isn’t landing on the page. The analogy, given by (the incisively thoughtful) Charmaine Craig, was that of a fever – it is just a symptom of infection. You have to be the doctor and get in there to diagnose and then cure.

5. Don’t be discouraged if you haven’t figured something out (like theme or who the murder victim is). Your confusion will be your reader’s delight because the story won’t be telegraphed. As you discover the answers, so will your readers. Your story will be better for it.

Those are some of the highlights.

And with that I will simply close by encouraging everyone out there to apply to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. And if you don’t get in, keep trying. It was such a great experience.

And one more photo from a little hike I took mid-week. So pretty:
Squaw Valley Community of Writers

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I Want to Be A Badass

I married into soccer the way other people marry into Catholicism. World Cup is like Lent – we don’t mess around. But in all seriousness, I’ve really come to appreciate the sport. It is a beautiful game, and I enjoy watching, but the thing I love most of all, the reason I keep coming back to sit next to my husband on the couch is this moment:

The moment right after a hard-won goal is scored and the striker loses his damn mind is absolutely captivating to me. I can almost feel that adrenaline pumping in my own veins, feel the exaltation so good it hurts. Almost.

As writers, we don’t really get that moment. When things are going really well we can slip into that magical zone where it doesn’t feel like work, but never have I ever been so overcome with my prose that I’ve slid across the floor on my knees, fists balled, screaming to the heavens.

Writing is like a sloth playing soccer. Though I’ve never actually played a game, and I’ve never (literally) been a sloth, it seems to me an apt metaphor. It’s not that we don’t struggle, or get tired, or sometimes put the ball right where we want it, it’s just that all the emotions of a ninety minute game are stretched out over years (sometimes a lot of years).

I crave that feeling. I wish I could cram the experience of writing a book into ninety minutes. I want to be a fucking badass, sliding across the grass knowing that, hell yes, that just happened. But it’s never going to happen at my laptop, and I don’t know how to manage my disappointment at that.

Am I alone in this? Any other writers out there get that craving for adrenaline and pressure and putting it all on the line? If so, how do you blow off steam? Have you found a way to bring that intensity to your writing? How can we balance the fact that our job is to sit quietly, alone, at a screen all day, when sometimes we want to run and yell and be a total badass? I’m not being rhetorical here, I really want to know…

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Taking a Vacation From Writing

Happy 4th of July everyone! My family and I are celebrating the country by being back in it. Yep, home sweet home. We just spent two weeks on vacation in South America doing a 10-day guided tour of Machu Picchu and the surrounding areas, and then a stopover in Quito, Ecuador to visit my husband’s family for a few days.

It was an epic trip. We’ve been planning it for months. And one of the things I always wrestle with when we go on vacation is whether or not to bring my writing. The decision was made harder this year by the fact that the deadline to submit my pages for the Squaw Valley Community of Writers was about a week after we were scheduled to leave. So my choices were to bust my ass and get the work done before we left, or bring my lap top and work up until the last possible minute.

Well, there was no way I was going to be sitting in the hotel room in Cusco working while the family went exploring. I busted my ass. I carved out as much time as I could to polish up those pages and put as bright a shine on them as I could. Then, the day before we left, I sent the pages in, closed my laptop, and got to packing.

Then the anxiety set it. Partly it was anxiety about the pages I submitted. Imposter Syndrome is real, people. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I could have made those pages better. But there was nothing to be done at that point. Except stress about it. Because, you know, that’s fun.

Also, I’ve realized over the years that I get anxious when I don’t write for more than a day or two. In the past I’ve devised little writing exercises to take on vacation and keep my writer brain engaged while I’m away from a story, but this time I didn’t want to bring busy work. I wanted to relax and enjoy my vacation. I wanted to not work.

I compromised by journaling. I brought the notebook I use for morning pages and took the time to write about our experiences. Decidedly NOT work, but it was enough writing to keep the anxiety at bay. (Some day I’ll reflect on why I’m a mess when I don’t write, but for now, I’ll embrace it as motivation.)

Here are a few more photos from the trip.

How do you manage writing on vacation? Do you bring the laptop? Always or just sometimes? Do you enjoy stepping away from your work, or does it make you nervous like me? Do you have any advice for dealing with the nervous rash I get when I don’t write (wait, let me guess – therapy)?


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First Idea, Best Idea?

Back when I was in grad school studying all things writing, I had a professor who insisted that when you’re writing you should trust your instincts and always go with your first idea. He was really emphatic about it.

Well, I thought about that long and hard. Then I dropped his class.

Back then I couldn’t really articulate why I thought this was such bad advice. I only knew that my first ideas are, more often than not, my worst ideas. Cliché, predictable, boring.

But since then, I’ve had some time to think about it. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Instincts Have Their Place

As humans, we are pattern seeking animals. We are quick to categorize. This has served us well over the course of our evolution. For instance, if you see a red glob of color with little black dots all over it and a green leafy top, you think “strawberry” and eat it. If you see a bug buzzing around in black and yellow, you think “bee” and leave it alone.

But as writers, we have to dig deeper than those first instincts, those base impulses that have kept our species alive for so long.

As an example, lets say I want to show that my character is happy at receiving some very good news. I could show him smiling. Yes. Smiling. Everyone knows that smiling means happy. But it’s boring.

Dig Deeper

To create a more interesting character, and tell a more interesting story, I need to explore what happy is to this particular character. Does he sing when he’s happy? Whistle? Does he tuck his chin, like he’s afraid to show his happiness? Is he more likely to buy something or give money to a homeless person on the streets? That’s five more ideas.

Five isn’t a bad start, but really I’m just sorting through more of the placeholder images in my head for “happy.” The reason people usually stop there is that it’s a lot of work to come up with unique ideas.

If It Was Easy, Everyone Would Do It

Another teacher I had in grad school (one whose class I didn’t drop) suggested making a list of at least thirty possibilities. You’ll find your best (most literary) options at the end of the list.

So here goes… Things my character might do after receiving good news:
6. push his hair back from his head
7. go outside
8. jump up and down
9. call a family member
10. run
11. write a note
12. drink alcohol
13. drink something else
14. smoke pot
15. dance around the room
16. lay down on his back and lace his fingers over his chest
17. jump up and dangle from a tree branch
18. cinnamon toast
19. make his bed
20. clap
21. talk to his cat
22. throw a rock
23. tell a stranger on the street the news
24. post it to social media
25. make a sign for the window of the house
26. sit back in his chair and just soak it up
27. polish his shoes
28. play an old favorite song
29. kiss his wife
30. handstand

You can probably tell I got a little stuck there around 19. Who makes their bed when they get good news? Nobody I know. And actually, it’s hard to say which of these is the right choice, since this is not a character I actually know, but I do think those last three are interesting. In fact, I really like 28. In my mind he’s putting on an old record of some Ramones song and rocking out, letting the excited energy fly. That could be a fun scene.

What do you think? Do you usually go with your first idea? If so, do you find it changes as you write it? Or do you, like me, have to dig to find the little gems that make a story fun?

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How to Open a Quick Reference Window in Scrivener in One Step

This post assumes you’re working with Scrivener 3.0. If you haven’t yet upgraded to 3.0, check out this post for a basic overview of the software update. 

One of the things I like best about Scrivener is the flexibility. There’s rarely just one way to do something. But when it comes to quick reference windows, I sometimes feel like there’s so many options on how to view them that the options overwhelm my distracted brain and I end up not being able to remember any of them.

Well, in my current project, I have a lot of reference material – things I’ve pulled from the Internet, timelines, photos – and out of necessity I’ve finally found the quickest, easiest way to pull things up when I just want a quick look and don’t want to lose my place in my writing.

Back Up

What’s a quick reference window, you ask? It’s a small window that floats above the window you’re working in so that you can see your research (or another section of your writing) while you’re writing.

It looks like this:

Sweet. Show Me How

It’s so simple. I can’t believe it took me so long to figure it out. Just drag and drop the thing you want to see in the pop-up window to the little icon at the top that looks like a pad of paper with a pencil.

To really use this trick like a pro, don’t click on the thing you want to show in the pop-up window. Doing that will jump you away from what you’re working on. Just drag and drop. Bam.

Like a Boss

That’s pretty much it for today, but as a parting shot, here are a few more tricks you can do with the quick reference window function:

If you think better with all your material spread out for you to see, take heart, you can open as many windows as you want. There’s probably a limit, but I haven’t found it. Just keep dragging and dropping and windows will keep popping up:

If you’re curious how I got a whole webpage to show up in my research section, you probably missed this post on how to embed a website.

If you like to minimize distractions, check out this post on how to view your research in composition mode.

Do you have any unusual ways to use the quick reference windows in your writing? Share them in the comments below. It’s always fun to hear how other writers are making the most of their software.

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Amy Meyerson and “The Bookshop of Yesterdays”

Bookshop of YesterdaysYesterday was the official launch date for my friend Amy Meyerson’s debut novel The Bookshop of Yesterdays. It’s always a big day when someone in your writing community launches a book. This photo doesn’t even do justice to how packed Skylight Books was last night.

The book tells the story of a young woman who inherits her uncle’s bookshop in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles and quickly comes to realize that, before his death, he set up a scavenger hunt for her that leads her from book to book. As she follows the clues, she learns the truth about the falling out her uncle had with her mother years before.

The story is a book-nerd’s dream. It totally made me want to own a bookstore. And it got me thinking about how we, as writers, choose what titles to use when our stories reference other books. So today we’re going to pick Amy’s brain a little bit about her experiences writing The Bookshop of Yesterdays.

Here goes…

April: I love the setting of your story. And it’s such fun to read about a character discovering clues in the books her uncle left her. When choosing the books to use, how did you balance what was right for your characters with what you needed to move the story along?

Amy: When I had the initial idea for this book, I knew right away that the novels I selected for the scavenger hunt would make or break it. I wanted to celebrate books I love, books other readers love, too, but they also had to work for the story I was trying to tell. The novels Billy uses in his scavenger hunt have a dual function: within their pages, Billy has highlighted a section of the text and left a corresponding clue that leads Miranda to talk to someone from his past. The highlighted sections help Miranda interpret her interactions with the people she meets from her uncle’s life. For this to work, the selected novels couldn’t feel arbitrary or inconsequential. They needed to resonate with my novel, either narratively or thematically. The only way I could achieve this was by starting with my story, so I plotted out what happened in the past and worked it into a series of stories that people who knew Billy could share with Miranda. Then, I made lists of possible titles that could work as clues, whittling them down to what I thought were the perfect choices for each section. If this sounds challenging, it was!

April: It’s one thing to write a story and another to publish it. What kind of changes did Park Row suggest? Did you have to change any of the titles you originally used?

Amy: The biggest thing I’ve learned through this process is that it’s different for every writer (and probably for every book, too. I’ll let you know once I’ve finished writing the next one!). I’m sure some writers do very little rewriting, but I did a ton of revisions at every step of the process: getting the manuscript ready to send out to agents, reworking with my agent, then revising with Park Row. When I went through my first round of edits with Park Row, I ended up making several shifts in the plot. The challenge of reimagining the plot was that I also had to change the corresponding novels and clues. Many of the books I initially selected didn’t work anymore, so I had to choose new titles. Ultimately, the batch I ended up with worked a lot better, not just for the story but for a book about books. In earlier drafts, I chose books that I loved but that many readers might not have read.

April: The pacing of the scavenger hunt really keeps the story moving. Did you know, before you started writing, how many clues the scavenger hunt would have, or did you just kind of feel it out as you went along?

Amy: I knew that I wanted to have a bunch of clues, but I didn’t have a preset number. So, I really let the story guide the clues. That said, the clues were instrumental in helping me find my way through the novel. This was my first attempt at writing a novel, and writing something so long can quickly become overwhelming. When I write short stories, I like to lay the printed pages out on the floor and look at them all at once. It allows me see the structure of the story. You can’t do that with a 300+ page novel. So, I needed a way to think of the novel in smaller, more digestible chunks. I suppose chapter breaks can accomplish this, but for me, I needed something woven into the fabric of the story. The clues were a really useful device in giving the novel a clear structure.

April: I hear your publisher is doing a real-life scavenger hunt to promote the book. How do we get in on that?

Amy: Yes! I’m so excited about it. Since the novel is set in an indie bookshop, we really wanted to show a little love to independent bookstores when marketing this book. Local bookstores are an essential part of today’s literary community. They are where readers connect and discover new books. My publicist had the awesome idea of running a sweepstakes to celebrate the publication of The Bookshop of Yesterdays, where participants could participate in a virtual scavenger hunt, then enter to win a gift certificate to the independent bookstore of their choice as well as lovely hardback editions of five classic novels mentioned in The Bookshop of Yesterdays.

To enter the sweepstakes scavenger hunt, just go to: (see below for more details*)

April: What does your writing routine look like? Do you write every day? Mornings or night?

Amy: As a professor, I’m very fortunate to have the summer and winter breaks to write. When I’m not teaching, I try to write in both the mornings and afternoons. During the semester, I try to get into a schedule where I write every morning, but it can be tough to find time on teaching days or during grading cycles. Some writers institute a daily word count, but I prefer to focus on a time goal. I try to write for 2-3 hours a day, longer in the summer. Sometimes, I can produce 10 pages in that timeframe. Other days, I struggle to get out a page. Because of this fluctuation, I think it’s best to commit to sitting down for a predetermined period of time. This keeps me focused on the process rather than the product.

April: Do you have any superstitions around your writing? Any little rituals you do to get your brain in the space to write?

Amy: No superstitions, but I always like to read before I write. I find reading a great novel really inspires me to sit down and get some work done.

April: What are you working on now?

Amy: I’ve been working on a new novel for the last few months. After several years of living and breathing the characters in The Bookshop of Yesterdays, it’s so fun and refreshing to build a new world. I’m still in the early stages, but it’s another family mystery, this time centered on a historic diamond. So far, it’s a lot of fun to write.

Lightning Round

April: Coffee or tea?
Amy: Coffee in the mornings, herbal tea at night.

April: Whiskey or vodka?
Amy: Whiskey. Only brown liquors for me!

April: Hemsworth or Gosling?
Amy: Gosling, definitely.

April: “Sneaked” or “snuck”?
Amy: It’s awkward, but sneaked.

April: Wetsuit or bathrobe?
Amy: Can I add a third option and say bathing suit? I’m a lap swimmer. I find the public pool is the best place to work through story ideas.

More about the real-life scavenger hunt: *NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER. Purchase or acceptance of a product offer does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes opens 06/12/2018 at 12:01 PM EDT and closes 07/03/2018 at 11:59 PM EDT. Enter online at Open to legal residents of the U.S. and Canada (excluding Quebec) who are over the age of 13. Void where prohibited by law. One (1) prize will be awarded, ARV $218.00 USD. Full details on prize and official rules available at Odds of winning depend on the number of eligible entries received.

A big thanks to Amy for taking the time. Get your copy of The Bookshop of Yesterdays today.

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Arriving At The Truth with Salman Rushdie

I’m fascinated by the intersection of truth and fiction. It’s something I became interested in after seeing Reza Aslan talk about his book Zealot back in 2014. He talked about the difference between truth and fact. As Americans we tend to lump the two together, but when you tease them apart you find a really interesting place where some of the best stories are born.

So when I came across this video of Salman Rushdie talking about this very thing, I knew I had to share it. I haven’t read his new book yet, but apparently it has a flying carpet, so you know I’m going to have to check that out…

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Put Your Writing on the Calendar First

Some big news this week. I was accepted to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers! It was not the first time I applied, and so I’m feeling particularly proud of myself for persevering through past rejections.

Now the Work Begins (eek!)

As part of the program, I am supposed to submit 5000 words for workshopping, and another 5000 words for an individual conference with one of the mentors there.

For my application I used the first chapter of my novel (the one currently being shopped to editors in New York). And I’m certainly not looking to workshop those pages.

And yet, what I’ve written so far on my second novel is so rough I would never show it to anyone. What’s more, I don’t have a ton of time to work on it. Though the pages aren’t due until the end of June, I’m shooting to have the work done by June 15th so that family obligations in the second half of the month don’t derail me.

Then I had to account for the fact that the kids are out of school on May 31st, and that the last week of school is a joke anyway with wall-to-wall school parties and early dismissals. Life is getting hectic, and I really want to put my best work forward on this thing.

Prioritize the Writing

As I was thinking about all of this, I was reminded of something I learned a while back but have since forgotten: you have to put your writing on the calendar first.

So I pulled out my bullet journal and looked at the coming weeks. I looked at every day and blocked out at LEAST one hour a day to work on my writing. Most days I was able to block out two hours, though some of those “two hour” blocks will probably be as long as whatever movie I put on for the kids. A quick google search tells me Pirate of the Caribbean is 2 hours and 20 minutes, and so is Mary Poppins, and every one of those Marvel movies is super long…

Then Honor It

The task now is to honor those blocks of time. No laundry, no dishes, no cooking dinner. If the calendar says I’m writing from 8-10, then damn it, come 8, I put aside everything else, load up an Avengers movie, and get to writing. I will order pizza – again. The kids can get dressed from the pile of laundry that still needs to be folded. Dishes can go ahead and pile up.

It can be challenging to not let things get it the way, but you know what? If you don’t block out writing time on your calendar you’re setting yourself up for defeat. Time will slip away, day by day, week by week, and another year will tick past without you “finding” the time to write. Don’t find time. Make it.

Put your writing on the calendar first, then work everything else around it.

Because you’re a writer.

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Use GoodReads to Avoid the Mistakes that Other Authors Make

GoodReads reviewsI had lunch with a writer friend of mine recently. We were talking about the projects that we’re working on, and the challenges we’re facing, when the conversation turned to GoodReads. My friend told me that she’s been using GoodReads to see where other writers have pissed off their readers.

To which I said: “say more.”

And she did. It’s freaking brilliant.

Determine Your Comps

First, she said, she made a list of comparable novels (“comps”). Her WIP has some specific, historical elements that she feels a little nervous about writing, so she chose comps that specifically address the same or similar elements.

For instance, say you’re working on a story about vampires (and I’m totally making this up – my friend’s story is NOT about vampires). You might add Twilight to your list. Maybe. If you’re writing a book about vampires, you probably know more about the topic than I do, and can probably name more than one book. So do that. Make the list as long as you can.

Then investigate.

Do Some Sleuthing on GoodReads

Go to and type in the name of one of your comps. Then, where the website lists the star ratings for the book, click to view the one-star reviews and dig in.

What did people hate about the book? Was there something that haters consistently complained about? Once you feel like you’ve got a sense for the gripes people had, switch to the four- and five-star reviews and see if any of those complaints pop up among readers who loved the book.

For instance, you might find a hater complaining that the story didn’t have enough details to make the lineage of the vampires believable. Then you might find someone who gave the story four stars, but dinged it because they didn’t totally understand the history of the vampires. That my friend, is a trend.

As a writer, you would be smart to take note that readers really need to understand the extended background/history of your vampires.

A Word of Warning

Opinions are like assholes though, right? Everybody’s got one. This little trick my friend was telling me about can go south REAL quick if you get sucked into trying to write something everybody will like. You can’t do it. Writing is art. There is not a single piece of art in the world that everyone agrees on. Let it go.

Do not read “sparkling vampires are lame,” and then decide that your vampires can’t sparkle. If your vision for vampires includes sparkles, you go on with your bad self and make them sparkle. (Except, that’s not a good example, because everyone will know you stole that detail from Stephenie Meyer.)

POINT IS – don’t let other people’s opinions shape your story. Instead, consider that we can all learn from other people’s mistakes. Even if we can’t sit down with our favorite authors for a one-on-one coaching sessions, we might be able to glean, through the feedback of readers, where a story fell a little flat, then turn that knowledge to our own writing and see if we can do better.

Good luck and happy writing!

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Explore Your Project History in Scrivener

As you’ve probably figured out by now, I like data, especially data that shows me I’m making progress on my projects. So today we’re going to talk about your Scrivener Project History. It’s new since the software update and I totally dig it. (This post assumes you’ve already upgraded. If not, you can read my post about the new version here, and you can save 20% off the price of the upgrade if you use the code APRILDAVILA at

Find Your Project History

This is such a simple little thing, but I just love it. Start by clicking on Project -> Writing History. Like this:

Scrivener Project History

What you’ll get is a pop-up window like this one:
Scrivener Project History

Now, I usually don’t share from my WIP (did you recognize the opening chapter of Moby Dick in the first image?), but since I don’t actually work on that mock-up on a day-to-day basis, I had to pull from my own work to show you the rest. Please be kind.

Day by Day

Start at the top with writing days. As it turns out, I have opened this project and worked on it on 42 different days. Funny. It feels like a lot more. And in truth, this count only goes back to the day I resurrected this project and uploaded it from Word, so I actually have spent a lot more than 42 days on it. But 42 since I got serious. Moving on…

Below that, you can see average words (and note that you can switch to characters by using the drop down menu at the top right there – and if you do, will you please tell me in the comments below why you prefer that? I’ve never understood why that’s a thing).

I deleted a lot when I first dug into reworking this project (thus the negative count on March 12), so my net word count is low, but I actually wrote about 700 words a day, which is respectable.

I also like to look at the dates lined up in the first column there. I try to write six days a week when I’m working on a draft. It would appear I didn’t quite hit that goal, but I was working pretty consistently. Yeah me.

The data at the bottom there is a summary of the highlighted day, March 14 in this case. I like that it also gives you the session target. If you’re not familiar with setting daily word count targets, check out my post on that. It’s SUPER handy when you’re working toward a specific goal. Cough*NaNoWriMo*cough.

Lastly, you can toggle from “Months and Days” to “Months Only” (on the right there above the chart), to get a wider perspective on your work.

Month by Month

Here’s what mine looks like:

Scrivener Project History
March was a good month. Kind of made up for January. Stupid January.
Anyway, you can see how the data at the bottom shifts. Under “Words written” the first column displays totals. The column on the right you can change with the drop-down menu.

For this example I chose to show averages, but you can also do maximum in a day or minimum in a day.

So that’s it. Just a quick and easy way to review your writing habits and see the progress you’re making. Happy writing!

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