To dos

  1. Identify your big vision: break the vision into smaller goals.
  2. Check if creative systems, routines, and habits align with your goals.
  3. Iterate.


The notes here shall be added into my forest garden. They are the most relevant to my thoughts and work. Whatever I didn’t include here are less relevant.

Iterate to improve your writing habits.

DIY MFA teaches to identify your personal best practices in your writing life. This can be done by iteration, a concept borrowed from lean entrepreneurship.

The process for iteration is as follows:

  1. Choose one variable (don’t test multiple variables) to introduce into your current writing routine.
  2. Choose a concrete, specific, and measurable output (usu. time when revising and outlining and word count when writing the first draft).
  3. Perform a writing session introducing the variable.
  4. Track the output + how you felt during session.
  5. Perform 12 writing sessions testing 12 data points within three weeks.
  6. Evaluate and analyze by asking the following: What’s working? What’s not working? What has been effective for my writing? What can I improve? Look for overall trends and general patterns.
  7. Use the results of the evaluation to improve your current writing routine.

You can become a great writer even without an MFA

The target market of MFA programs are people:

  • who write literary fiction, creative fiction, or poetry;
  • thrive in a formal academic environment;
  • rich enough to afford the tuition;
  • and who has a lot of time to make the most of it.

Not everyone fits the criteria above, therefore, not everyone needs an MFA. Fortunately, those who don’t fit the MFA criteria can still be great writers by perfecting their craft and producing great books.

In addition, pursuing a writing life outside an MFA allows a writer to enjoy two benefits that are so difficult to achieve in an MFA:

  • You are able to fit your writing into your real life.
  • You take things at your own pace, which builds internal motivation.

Three elements of a writing life

To get better as a writer, you only need to focus on three things:

  1. Write with focus. Explore at first but get clarity on your goals and pursue concrete projects to finish.
  2. Read with purpose. Maintain a reading list, which you read to understand the author’s craft and find something in it that you can use in your own writing.
  3. Build your community.

Ideally, maintain a time allocation of 50% writing, 25% reading, and 25% community-building. But keep this allocation flexible depending on your projects.

Two rules to follow:

  1. No single element can ever disappear altogether.
  2. Evaluate your time allocation every 1-2 weeks to maintain its relevance.


Academic training could help a writer publish, but it cannot replace determination.

”The surest way to grow as a writer is to grow as a human being.” - Jacquelyn Mitchard

Chapter 1: Discover the DIY MFA Mindset (Processed)

The DIY MFA Mindfulness Manifesto

  • Writer’s block does not exist.
  • Resistance is your compass.
  • Do not compound failure with guilt.
  • There is no such thing as a “best practice.”
  • Iterate, iterate, iterate.

Prioritize writing projects that are both high-stakes and exciting over throwaway projects.

When a writing project is meaningful, resistance usually happens.

In writing, test different approaches and only adopt the ones that give you the results you want.

VITAL steps to iteration in writing

  • V = Choose your input and output variables. Determine an input (independent variable) that you superimpose on a writing session (e.g., environment, background sound, ritual, props, etc.). Then determine a concrete, specific, and measurable output (dependent variable) that you will measure after the experiment. Output is usually time and word count or both. It is good to measure word count when writing the first draft, while time is best measured during revising or outlining.
  • I = Collect information. Track time and words written, but also how you felt during your writing session. You need to establish a writing process that feels good. Track at least 12 data points in 12 writing sessions to give you enough information to see patterns. Use a sheet that tracks the following: date, variable, words, time, how it felt.
  • T = Set a trip wire. Set a deadline for the data collection stage. Do not collect data for more than three weeks.
  • A = Evaluate and analyze. Ask: What’s working? What’s not working? What has been effective for my writing? What can I improve? Look for overall trends and general patterns.
  • L = Learn from the results and decide what’s next. Keep doing what works and let go of what doesn’t.

Use pivoting in your writing life. Instead of overhauling it, make a small tweak to your process and apply the VITAL steps.

Don’t test multiple input variables at the same time.

Chapter 2: Customize Your Learning (Processed)

Beautiful writing not credentials will get your book published.

Many writers perfect their craft and produce great books without ever getting a degree.

To make a writing life sustainable, you need to fit your writing into your real life. You need to pace yourself and build internal motivation. These goals are challenging when getting credentialed.

Who MFA is for:

  • Writers of literary fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry.
  • Writers who thrive in a formal academic environment.
  • Those who can afford the tuition.
  • Those with time to make the most of the experience.

The DIY MFA Formula

  1. Write with focus. Play and explore at first, but eventually, you need to choose a project and finish it.
  2. Read with purpose. Read with the intention of understanding an author’s craft and finding something in it that you can use to improve your writing.
  3. Build your community.

Note: These are also what craig mod said are the main areas of a writing life.

Ideally, maintain a time allocation of 50% writing, 25% reading, and 25% community-building. But keep this allocation flexible depending on your projects.

Two rules of the pie

  1. No slice can ever disappear altogether. Dropping one piece kills you momentum in that area.
  2. Evaluate your pie every 1-2 weeks to maintain its relevance.

Chapter 3: Set Goals and Start Strong (Processed)

Your writing career is a road trip and your goals are the destinations in your map.

Establish where you are right now in your writing career before setting goals. Use the writing inventory for this. See My writing life inventory.

Buy the following necessary supplies:

  • Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style
  • At least one book of writing techniques.
  • At least one anthology of short-form literature for inspiration.

Establish a vision for where you want to be. Use it to maintain focus.

Your big goals could change year to year. Set at most three goals a year.

Translate your vision into a concrete outcome.

Break your vision into smaller increments to make it more manageable.

Celebrate each milestone.

Smaller goals make it easier to track your progress, which is necessary to encourage you.

Answer the following questions to set your vision:

  • What’s your destination, the big vision or long-term goal you have for your writing?
  • What’s the concrete outcome that will tell you that you’ve reached your goal?
  • Reverse engineer the milestones leading up to that concrete event. Work backwards from the goal and try to make each milestone as small as possible.
  • What first small step can you take toward your goal right this moment? Do it today.

Track your progress by tracking your goals. This will show you how far you’ve come and give insight into your writing process.

Keep your big vision front and center so you can set milestones and action steps with integrity.


Chapter 4: Motivate Yourself (Processed)

Manage your choices to control your productivity.

The most important part of writing is filling up the blank page.

Writing is too much work to be considered a hobby.

Talent is often irrelevant; what matters is how serious you are about your writing.

Writers make writing their priority.

H = Honor your reality A = Add constraints B = Block time and batch tasks I = Iterate T = Ten percent rule S = Set the mood

Honor your reality

  • Your writing life and real life can coexist. Fit writing into your busy life.

Add constraints

  • Use two constraints: word count and time.
  • Use word count for a first draft.
  • Use time limit for planning or revising.
  • When you hit your word count or time goal, stop; don’t work past the point of fatigue.
  • Keep your momentum by writing something every day.
  • Use the ten percent rule to increase your goal slowly.
    • Choose a comfortable goal then add ten percent (e.g., 33 minutes instead of 30 or 550 words instead of 500)
    • Add ten percent whenver you start feeling comfortable with your goal.
  • Create a writing process that will help you to write many beautiful books.
  • Your process should be flexible enough that you could write anywhere even when the situation is less perfect.

Chapter 5: Fail Better (Processed)

Failure and rejection are part of a writer’s life and are essential ingredients to your success.

Use a system to cope with failure and bounce back from rejection.

F = Face your fears A = Assemble your allies I = Initiate and iterate L = Let it go

Fail fast and fail often to eliminate a bad option and establish a creative process that moves closer to success.

Face your fears

  • Fear indicates where you should concentrate.
  • Fear is an essential component of courage.
  • Courage is taking a leap of faith despite fear.

Iterate and iterate

  • You don’t need to get it all right on the first try; start a project even if you don’t feel ready.
  • Don’t take setbacks personally: say “This failed” not “I failed.”
  • There is no such thing as failed writing. All writing is part of the journey to getting better.
  • Think of failure as progress.

Let it go

  • Acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them but do not waste energy obsessing over them.

Chapter 6: Generate Ideas on Demand

  1. Myth: Creativity is an exclusive club, and you can’t be a part of it. Truth: Anyone can be creative, but they have to work for it.
  2. Myth: Creativity is innate—you either have it or you don’t. Truth: No one is born creative. You become creative through small, simple steps.
  3. Myth: Creativity is driven by chaos, so there’s no way to control it. Truth: Creativity is a process with logical, repeatable steps. To recreate your successes, you need to be methodical even when you allow playfulness into your processs.
  4. Myth: Creativity is all about getting that one “big idea.” Truth: Although it has some luck into it, a writing career is fostered from years of hard work and taking action.
  5. Myth: Creativity means polishing an idea until it’s perfect. Truth: Learn from small failures until it finally works.

Creativity is logical and straightforward. You can turn it on or off.

Four stages of creativity (IDEA)

  1. I = Inspiration
  2. D = Development
  3. E = Evaluation
  4. A = Action

The more often you go through this cycle, the more skilled you are in generating new ideas.


  • You can sidestep inspiration by using brainstorming techniques and writing prompts.
  • Leave some things to chance (e.g., choose a random exercise or prompt, flip a coin or roll a dice to make decisions).
  • Engage the five senses. You will find thousands of stories around you if you only pay attention.
  • Silence your inner critic. Laugh at it by keeping a mascot of it.
  • Break out of your comfort zone. Notice when a habit has become too comfortable and is no longer useful. Practice the ten percent rule.
  • Create an idea bank: a safe space where you store project ideas until they are activated. Schedule a regular time to review your idea bank.
  • Create an oracle: a place to go for inspiration:
    • Collect writing prompts or book of prompts.
    • Collect images, mementos, and anything else that will spark a story.
    • Use a word box filled with slips of paper with random words.


  • Imitation
    • You can even copy yourself!
    • Choose an author whose voice or style you admire, and then copy a paragraph of one of her stories longhand. Get a sense of how the words feel as you write them on the page. Try to get into the author’s mind-set. What was it like to be this author? What was it like to write these words?
    • You can also try to imitate the voice or style of a writer you admire by applying that style to your own words or stories.
    • When you have learned the rules of an author’s style and have recreated his voice, you can break those rules and craft your own voice.
  • Improvisation
    • ”Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself.”
    • Start making the process all your own.
  • Incubation
    • Take a break from a project to give you the necessary perspective and distance to gain new insights and eventually make a breakthrough.
    • Practice productive procrastination.
    • Unplug from media for a period of time.
    • Do something completely different: active, repetitive, and restorative.
  • Evaluation
    • Ooch your way into a book-length project.
    • Make smaller sampler projects to test if you like the idea behind the book.
    • Start by writing a short story. Do not summarize your entire book. Take a deep dive into one particular aspect of the larger story. Focus on creating a standalone piece with a beginning, middle, and end.
    • Use the short story to build your platform, boost your writer’s resume, and connect with readers.
    • Give your story to a few readers and ask for feedback.
    • Use the feedback to improve your overall project.
    • Decide whether you want to stick with the book project.
    • Make sure your story is marketable. Know what is new in your genre. Read comps to determine whether your book has legs.
    • View your book as one incremental step in your career as a writer.
    • Extract an outline from your draft to show you what you’ve written and what still remains. See redundancies and gaps. Use the outline to plan, test an idea, take inventory, and revise.
  • Action
    • Occassionally step back and look at your project as a whole.
    • The IDEA cycle only becomes complete when a reader is finally reading your book.

Chapter 7: Outline your book like a boss

Most writers fall somewhere between plotter and plantser.

You can flip-flop between the two depending on your project and where you are in your process.

Use an outline but adjust it as your story develops.

  • Do not use a long-list outline.
  • Instead, use modular outline techniques.

Scene cards

  • Create scene cards.
  • 1 card = 1 scene
  • A scene card contains the following:
    • Title for the scene - short and catchy; helps remember the scene
    • Major players - treat crowds as a unit
    • The action - 2-3 sentences
    • The purpose - scenes should either contribute to the plot or help develop a character, or both.
  • Write scene cards for scenes you have already written and those you have yet to write.
  • How to use them
    • Play with the order of your book.
    • Jump between different scenes.
    • Change directions.
    • Eliminate irrelevant scenes.

Mind maps

  • Write the title or topic at the center of the page.
  • Draw branches to subtopics.
  • Draw branches from subtopics.
  • Use thought bubbles for ideas and speech bubbles for quotes.
  • Doodle or sketch the ideas you are mapping.
  • Caveat: Mind maps do not lend themselves to narratives. Best for prescriptive nonfiction.
  • Novelists and memoirists can use it for world-building or keeping track of different groups of characters.

Story sketch

  • Captures the overall essence of your study.
  • Include a story sketch at the beginning of your submission to help critique partners.
  • How to write one:
    • Write the flap copy (elevator pitch) for your story. Provide just enough information to entice readers.
    • List your five most important characters and provide a brief description for each one.
    • Give a short description of the story’s world and narration.
    • Choose a theme song or soundtrack for your story.
    • Sum up your story in a fortune cookie saying.

Story map

  • Imagine the story map as a subway system:
    • Subway line = subplot or story thread
    • Dots (subway stops) = individual scenes
    • Black dots (local stops) = scenes for only one storyline
    • White dots (express stops) = scenes where two or more plot threads intersect
  • Benefits:
    • You could tease apart the different threads and test each one for pacing, buildup, and tension
    • Can isolate the main plot or a subplot and examine it separately.
    • Ensures that conflict, which drives your story, is at the center of your outline.
  • How to write one:
    • Write out your scenes. Use your scene cards.
    • Figure out the plot threads, thematic elements, or images you want to track in your story map.
    • For each plot thread, determine the dramatic question: the question or conflict that drives the story.
      • Main plot thread = Major Dramatic Question (MDQ)
      • Subplots = Lesser Dramatic Questions (LDQs)
      • These questions boil down each plotline to one central conflict

Mood boards

  • Use this to convey the mood of your story.

How to use outlines

  1. Use it as a diagnostic tool while you write your first draft.
  2. Extract an outline from a finished draft.
  3. Extract outlines from books you read and get an in-depth look at their story and structure


Read classics to put your writing into context.

Read broadly across different genres and topics.

Three objectives when reading:

  1. Read books that teach you the craft and help improve your writing.
  2. Read to deduce strategies you can use in your own writing projects.
  3. Respond to books by taking notes and analyzing them.

Choose books that are both fun to read and improve your mind.

Read the first 10 pages of a book. If you want to give it the benefit of the doubt, read the first 10 percent. But if a book doesn’t work for you after that, do not hesitate to drop it down even if it is a classic. Life is so short.

Invest your money and shelf space to just a few necessary books:

  • A = Anthology of short-form literature
  • B = Book of prompts
  • C = Craft reference

Short-form literature is a piece you can consume in about an hour.

Here are the benefits of short-form literature:

  • It is easy to see the story arc and how the different elements fit together.
  • You can study the small craft (grammar, syntax, word choice, and punctuation) and big craft (character development and story structure) and see how micro level elements affect the macro level.
  • It is easy to spot character transformation.
  • Stories are focused and to the point.
  • You can learn economy of words.

Use book of prompts that arrange exercises according to technique and target particular aspects of the writing craft. This kind of book will help you work on a specific technique or element of writing separately before applying it to your project.

Practice outside the context of your project. Master the skill then apply it to your work.

How to do the petri dish technique:

  1. Find the specific problem.
  2. Look for an exercise that focuses on the technique that solves your problem.
  3. Practice for one solid week for 15 to 20 minutes a day.
    1. Do not change variables.
    2. Only change the context of the prompt (apply it to different characters or circumstances).
    3. Once you complete a prompt, date it then file it. Do not reread it.
    4. Take a week off.
    5. Review your prompts. Look at the progress from the first to the last exercise. Have you improved?
    6. If you are confident, apply the practice to your existing work.

Create a reading list that is unique to your interests and writing projects.

Your two main objectives when reading are:

  1. Improve your current writing project.
  2. Challenge you to read broadly and understand literature as a whole.

Four Cs of a reading list

  1. Competitive titles
  2. Contextual titles
  3. Contemporary books
  4. Classics

Competitive titles

  • Directly competes with your book
  • Same genre and category as your work
  • Covers similar themes and subject matter
  • Use comp titles to find authors with readers who will also be your readers.

Contextual Books

  • Puts your project into context.
  • Not same genre or readers but same theme or subject matter
  • Books that use a particular storytelling technique, even if it delves on a different subject matter.
  • Track the earliest book that used the technique.

Contemporary Books

  • Read a few books in your genre published in the past three years.
  • Aspire to be aware of new trends to know where your genre or niche is going.
  • Study how they are launched or marketed.
  • Find at least one book written by an author considered a founder of your genre.


  • Read classical short-form literature.

Make a list of 12 books with at least 2 books in each category.

Here is My ABC books

Here is My reading list

Read through your list within one year, which means read one book per month.

Evaluate your list every month


Pereira, G. (2016). DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community. Writer’s Digest Books.