Advice To My University Freshman Self + Spreadsheet Template

I’m surprised I’m not feeling the disgruntled pull of back-to-school season. This is my first year not going into school once September hits, so I half expected that I’d be itching to get on a bus or go to a campus and get in a classroom. But I’m not.

I’m thinking about the most recent school experience I had: university. I wish I had gone into university with the right mindset—seeking higher education—instead of the wrong impulse—getting out of my childhood home and being “independent.” Nobody in family really did the university thing (and if they did, they weren’t around to mentor me through my last year of high school, which was filled with grief and angst). So here’s the advice I’d like to give to my freshman self, after I’ve done the undergraduate program.

Get your mental health checked out before you have a breakdown.

Seriously, Coryl. You’ll fail a class, scrape by in three others that are prerequisites for the rest of your degree, and you’ll get yourself on academic probation. Your mental health matters and when you’re barely sleeping, abusing alcohol, and not doing anything aside from resisting the call of the void… you need help.

Compile all of your class syllabi into one master spreadsheet/calendar.

Use it. Plan your time. You’ll go through weeks where you have nothing due, and you’ll slack off. And then the next few weeks will be a bloodbath of assignments, tests, readings, and presentations. Hindsight is 20/20, but foresight isn’t half bad either. Here’s a handy Google spreadsheet, based off the ones that older (more successful) Coryl used each semester.

Speak up in class, even if you’re not entirely right.

A good professor—hell, even a decent one—will be able to take your half-baked answer and continue lecturing off of that, and your classmates will already be more interested if they hear someone speak other than your prof. You know all those times the lectures dragged on? That’s because the prof was trying to get you guys to supply some information or questions. Plus, there’s bound to be a participation grade and your prof will remember you (and ask your name, you’ll never get used to saying your name out loud and having to repeat it). You’ll also digest the information better because you gave some input.

Don’t leave things to the last minute—studying, reading, essays.

This is something everyone says, but honestly, when you’re in a double concentration program that has two different languages, nearly a book’s-worth of reading each week, and linguistic studies, all with multi-faceted methods of learning (presentations, essays, quizzes, you name it)—you can’t leave shit to the last minute. You literally are not able to read an entire Shakespeare play in one morning. Your reading speed and your typing speed are not high enough for you to be able to do it all in one shot the night before.

Stop drinking.

It’s not worth it. You’ll gain weight. You’ll develop an addiction you knew you’d get, even before you tasted vodka, and you’ll create a persona with your drunk behaviour that other people will assume is your true personality. You’re not Drunk Coryl. You’re Coryl and when you’re drunk, you’re more like Manic Coryl—and Manic Coryl is not a healthy Coryl.

You got this, Coryl. You didn’t have it when you were a freshman, but you’ll have it by the time you finish.


Now the only things I need to do are stop worrying about my debt and continue plowing forward to reaching my goals.

Bullet Journal Breaks: Starting and Ending Them

At the end of October, I took a break from my bullet journal (and most parts of life, let’s be honest). Recently, I took an unintended break at the end of March that last through most of April.

These two recent incidents aren’t the first hiatuses I’ve taken from my bullet journal. In fact, it’d be rare for me to commit to bullet journalling with the same motivation and dedication for more than 6 months.

Sometimes I feel guilty for setting aside my bullet journal. I should use it daily and rely on it. But there was a time before a planner and it wasn’t as bad as it might be in retrospect.

When you use a planner, it isn’t as if your skillset stays with the tactile book or software you use. A planner, whether it’s a bullet journal or printed agenda or an app, will strengthen your time management skills even when you’re not using it. That’s what a habit does, after all. So taking a break from your bullet journal won’t always be because of chaos or cause chaos.

My tips for taking a break from a bullet journal—whether it’s intentional or not—are similar to the ones in my post on how to take breaks from writing.

You might need to take an intentional/planned break from your bullet journal if you’re experiencing any of these:

  • getting distracted from your journal
  • feeling bored by using it
  • forgetting to use it at all
  • overwhelming pressure to create something (a nice layout, collections, spreads) despite not wanting to
  • “burnout” of any kind

Tips To Take A Break From Bullet Journalling

Be kind to yourself.

There’s nothing wrong with putting aside things. A bullet journal isn’t a primary necessity in your life, like hygiene, food, or sleep. You can account for its disappearance in your daily routine if you need to take a break.

Pick a time to break from the bullet journal.

My last break, at the end of March, was just then: at the end of March. I noticed the above signs (all of them) on top of my priorities and mental health changing. I started a break from my bullet journal in the beginning of April.

A good guideline for starting and ending your break? Make them the same amount. If you’re start your break at the beginning of a month, have the break last a month. A week, a day, whatever suits your flow. If you notice you’re naturally stepping away from your bullet journal, take a look and see if you can extend the break mindfully.

Aim for a length of time to take the break—but make it flexible.

My month-long bujo break wasn’t exactly a hard-and-fast, cold-turkey disconnect from my bullet journal. I was barely using it for the first 3 weeks of April. During the last week, I needed to use it again, though not to the capacity I had previously been using it. My plan was to break for a month, but when necessity kicked in, I had to adapt.

Returning To The Bujo

My last point in taking a break mentioned necessity. When necessity kicks in, I use my bullet journal.

Signs it’s time to start planning again:

  • feeling disconnected from your activities
  • taking on more projects
  • increasing workload (personal work, professional work, housework, etc.)
  • making to do lists on scraps of paper, in your phone, anywhere

Tips To Start Bullet Journalling Again

Be inspired to create again.

You can look at Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook groups, and your own spreads to get jived to make something in your bullet journal again. My favourite way to get inspired to make a new spread is to look at new ones. Most often, my breaks happen because I’m bored of doing the same layouts.

Assess what needs to go into your bullet journal.

At one point, you may have had a habit tracker for every habit—a dozen or more—or you had an elaborate monthly calendar with quotes and routines all over it. Do you need that now, at this moment, to get planning again? You don’t have to set it aside forever, but is it what you need now? Think about what you need to write down, rather than what you want to look at later.

My recent return features a calendar, a sleep tracker, and 3 habit trackers. I thought that’d be good enough, but then I started making to do lists and… well, I’m bullet journalling again. But I’m doing it in such a way that leads me to my final tip for restarting.

Start simple.

Keep the pressure off yourself by making a simple spread first. This is always a good chance to go back to the roots of bullet journalling and look to Ryder Carroll’s system. The central concept for a bujo is adaptable and simple. It’s meant to be a quick and effortless way to plan, track, and remember your time. You may love doing calligraphic flourishes, or pretty headers, but ease back into them.

Incorporate the bullet journal into your routine again.

I like to look at my bullet journal once before bed, and after I’ve woken up and eaten breakfast.

At night, I review how the day went and see what needs to be done still. For an incomplete task, I add an arrow and write out the task again for the next day, or I look at a list of important, but not time sensitive, tasks that I’ve put in my spread. I also flip back to previous spreads to fill in habits and other places I need to touch base (bookmarks are handy for this).

In the morning, I assess how I’m feeling and how much time I have for the day. That way, I can accommodate any leftover tasks that I didn’t complete. Throughout the day, I occasionally check my bullet journal for what I need to do, especially if I find myself losing track of time.

But to start out with, I check in to my bullet journal at the end and beginning of the day, when it fits into my routine. I’m more likely to remember my bullet journal at the start and end of a day, so I make an effort to sit with it, undistracted, and adjust to changes in my time management. It’s okay to have unfinished tasks!

(An upcoming layout spotlight will feature the weekly + daily log combination I’ve loved using since the beginning of my bujo return.)

My Biggest Piece of Advice?

For both taking a break and returning from a break, I have one, single, be-all-end-all tip:

Don’t force anything.

Planning for something isn’t the same as forcing something. When you plan, you’re making space to accommodate the change. When you force, you’re trying to apply it when the time or circumstances won’t allow. Don’t force a cold-turkey break, or aim for an aesthetic if they’re things you can’t accommodate.

Happy bullet journalling, folks!

Literary Tips: Description

Description in writing means you’re trying to show your readers how something is in a physical, tangible, or visceral way. While I write, I flip between describing too much and not describing enough. Some scenes will be filled with too much literary painting of a location, and others leave me wondering where on earth my characters talk, stand, and exist. I have a few tips for how I try to describe, since I know my weaknesses: I go overboard or I don’t go far enough at all. These tips are designed for fellow writers who can’t find a balance between the two!

As always, remember the voice and style you’re writing in. Some of these tips won’t be recommended depending on your style. If you’re writing, say, a clinical sci-fi story, then toning down on metaphor and simile will be more aligned to your story’s voice.

Anyway, here are my tips for writing description if you struggle to find a balance!

General

Consider senses (sight, sound, smell, feel, taste, size/scale/magnitude, balance, time)

Sensory details make a scene more visceral. The classic five senses are great for putting characters and the setting in reality. However, there are more senses to consider! I personally like to use senses in time and scale for my setting. I’ll describe how big things are in relation to each other, like the character, or how time feels when it’s passing or not passing. Using a sense of warmth and chill is one of my tactics for describing characters—though I tread carefully with that, since it may turn cliche very quickly.

Characters

Pick one physical trait as a first impression for readers and other characters.

One stand-out feature often packs a bigger punch than multiple features to describe a character’s appearance. If I focus on a detail while giving a broad picture image of a character, while I’m reading, I can somehow imagine the character more easily. Think of a stand-out feature of someone you know well or care about. It doesn’t necessarily define their image, but it’s memorable. You want to write memorable characters.

Try to “package” their appearance, instead of cataloguing all of their features.

Find descriptors that do multiple things at once instead of listing out an excessive amount of them. Lists are great, but too many descriptions at once will overwhelm a reader. This goes along with picking one stand-out trait. When you package a character using fewer words, you give the reader broad strokes and impressions of the character. A woman with a dark complexion on a slim build who has green eyes framed by thick, bushy eyebrows that nearly touched her temples—this kind of description packages a character’s appearance better than saying “She had dark brown skin, black hair, with slim limbs and a tall frame, while her emerald eyes sat under thick, bushy eyebrows.” This latter description is more of a catalogue. They both say the same thing (dark hair and skin, slim figure, green eyes, thick eyebrows), but proportionally, they focus on different aspects. I will emphasise one thing here, though: be aware of stereotypes, particularly bigoted ones. A flamboyant gay man is a stereotype. A sassy black woman is a stereotype. Be aware of them, particularly if you’re writing characters with identities and ethnicities different than yours.

Show one physical quirk that expresses one emotion.

This tip is very specific. I like to pick one quirk, habit, or behaviour that shows a character’s emotion. This is where people watching helps me make a mental database of quirks! Some people twirl their hair when they’re thinking. When I’m incredibly focused, I nibble on my dead cuticles. For the same emotion, my boyfriend chews at his fingernails. When I’m anxious, I rub my thumb against the side of one of my fingers, or I click my fingernails together (if they’re long). There are cliche body language gestures for certain emotions (such as chewing on your nails), but if you watch people mindfully, you’ll notice that they have unique gestures. It helps to people watch the same person often, or even yourself, to come up with these quirks.

Setting

Avoid “white room syndrome” by describing the setting near the beginning of a new scene/chapter.

“White room syndrome” is when your characters exist in a state of nothingness while they talk or act. They may be moving around or interacting with each other, but they lack an environment. I always picture a floor-less, wall-less room with the characters standing on nothing. Like the scene in The Matrix before Neo and Trinity gear up at the climax. Or, for more examples, the “White Void Room” shown often in film and television. I avoid this by writing a bit of setting description near the beginning of the scene, to set the stage.

Use your POV character to describe the location.

What would they notice? What interests them? What stands out or doesn’t stand out to them? Just like you and your friends, you’ll notice different details when looking at or experiencing something.

Worldbuilding

Aim for nuances and mood.

This tip is similar to the character packaging one. Instead of cataloguing all the surroundings and environment, try to create an atmospheric mood with a few details. A rainy day on a forested hill has a mood. A mix of conifer and broadleaf trees, illuminated by beams of sun above the character… that also has a mood. What doesn’t have a mood? “I walked into the forest, noting the pine and broadleaf trees swaying, and climbed the hill, travelling deeper.” There’s no quality of light, weather, or environment to overlay the entire image.

Avoid dumping information on the reader in order to show as much as possible of your world.

This tip goes for characters as well, but I emphasise it for setting. Since I write fantasy, it’s also my primary reading genre. Fantasy writers want to convey their created or altered world in as much detail as possible to their readers. Perhaps it’s an insecurity of ours, and we don’t think the place is “real” enough and we overdo the description. Or perhaps the world is our primary interest in the story and we’re just too dang excited about it to stop describing it. Regardless, too much at once will disconnect the reader from the story. We learn about the world naturally by learning slowly as we grow up, as we visit new places, as we research different countries. Small details add up over time and readers can more easily remember bite-size chunks to form the world in their mind as they read.


Hopefully you can take away something useful from this post! What are some of your weaknesses when it comes to description? What about your strengths?

How To Take A Break From Your Writing

Before you take a break from your writing, you should first and foremost recognise that you need a break. We can’t be at 100% all the time. Engines need to be refuelled. Pencils need to be sharpened. Insert any analogy or metaphor you’d like; the fact of the matter is that we need breaks from everything we do. Creative projects are no different from taking a vacation from your job, going to sleep at the end of the day, or resting when you’re sick.

You might need a break if you experience any of these:

  • getting distracted easily from your project
  • becoming frustrated at your writing or writing progress
  • embarking on line edits prematurely
  • finding yourself doing other things, whether it’s work, school, family, hobbies, instead of writing
  • “burnout” of any kind

How To Take A Break

Look to the future to see when you might be busy.

It’s hard to focus on creative projects, especially writing, if you’re travelling, swamped with work, handling family issues, or doing a lot with your time that you can’t delegate to someone or address later. Whenever I’m pressed for time and energy, my creative projects and hobbies fall to the wayside. I can plan for breaks from my writing if I look ahead at my schedule. You might end up being too preoccupied with life to feel guilty for not writing on top of it—this is the benefit of planning a break from your writing. You’re going according to plan!

Assess your mental and emotional well-being: could you use a break?

My writing burnout manifests through worsened mental health. I get distracted, frustrated, and tired more easily and quickly. Writing is a lot of mental and emotional work! If you’re feeling less than your best, you should take a break. If your manuscript also feels like it’s dragging you down, or you’re doubting yourself and value as a writer, you should take a break.

Are you at a major transition in your writing? (Between drafts, embarking on revising, etc.)

Authors commonly leave their manuscripts for a few weeks before they revise. This is a break from the writing project! They’ve completed one phase of it (drafting) and are transitioning into another phase (revising). Revision itself has multiple phases. I’m a hardcore advocate for taking time away from your writing when you’re in-between major milestones in completing the project. You become saturated by your work and it’s hard to step back any other way. I like taking breaks after drafts (first draft, second draft, etc.) and before revisions. Doing so gives me the chance to clear my head of the story and meet it again with a fresher perspective. I also have the chance to research, tweak my outline, prepare for the next draft or revision, and do the admin side of writing. It’s a lot less fun than the act of writing, which is why I do it when I’m not focusing on the creative aspect!

Prepare For A Break

Set a place in your writing for you to return to.

A concrete space to pick up your work will make the break easier to come out of. Pick a place, such as at the beginning of an act or a new draft, for you to begin your break—and then return to.

Aim for a duration timeline and a finishing deadline.

This is why you need to look at your future schedule and plans! You can work around the stress of life’s demands. You can pick a day after the stress has subsided for you to return to your writing. This is also a great way to schedule out how long your break will be.

Gather your tools for your return: inspiration, motivation, review of your writing, etc.

It’s harder to pick up something than it is to set it down, especially when it’s a creative project like a book. While you have the time and energy now, compile anything that gets you into the zone or flow of your writing. For me, I use music playlists, moodboards, character worksheets, and an outline. Having these materials at the ready when you’re ready makes the break appear seamless, or at the very least more natural.

My Recent Writing Break

I took a five/six week break from my writing before I started revisions. I was aiming for less than eight weeks, and I knew I’d be moving at the end of April. I work quickly with edits and revisions (it’s part of why I offer editing services!), so I knew I could squeeze in revisions before I needed to start packing.

This break from my manuscript was forced on me, in a way, since I couldn’t continue writing the novel after I finished it. I could have picked up and started a new project, but I assessed my situation and health: this is my first complete novel, my mental health needed some TLC, and I’m a serial polygamist with my writing. With this manuscript, I decided to prioritise finishing one project before starting another.

If I hadn’t had the break in between drafting and revising, I would’ve dived blindly into edits. I’m enjoying the process right now, and that’s because I took the time to prepare for the break and how to return to it.

Literary Tips: Weaving Plot, Character, and Setting

If you’re like me and you’ve written your novel, you know who your characters are, what the conflict is, and where everything takes place. But that’s probably because you’ve spent so much time thinking about them. You know your protagonist’s quirks. You know the name of the taxi driver in chapter 7. You know tons of little details about your world and its weather. You’re fathoms deep in your story, and we often scale back on the details we write while drafting to avoid over-exposition.

But have you, also like me, overlooked why you need to weave the characters, plot, and setting together?

Let’s take a step out of stories and look at the real world. We live in places and have experiences that impact who we are. If you grew up where I did, you’d know a bit of French and read it on all your product packaging. If you grew up with my life, you’d have experiences that changed you and your behaviour.

In real life, and as it should be in stories, people can’t be separated from their surroundings and their struggles.

Whether or not your story revolves around character or conflict, the three main aspects of your story (except theme, but that’s a post for another day) are character, setting, and plot. Your story will improve if you can weave them together.

Weaving these three together means thinking about how they interact with one another. There is a push and a pull between them all. They need to work harmoniously. Doing so will create a strong net that will catch your story. You’ll have fewer plot holes if you can justify why problems happen to your character in the setting, and how all three play with each other.

Here are some questions to help you figure out if you’re weaving the plot, character, and setting. These questions are intended to be asked for a scene or chapter, but are also incredibly useful with the broad-spectrum view of your story.

  • How does your character act in the setting?
  • How does setting impact your character?
  • Why does the conflict take place in this setting?
  • Why does your character stay in or leave the setting?
  • What will the plot and conflict change about your character?
  • What can your character do to influence the conflict and plot?

If you can’t remember the specific questions or want a simpler way to remember them, there are three question words to ask about your character/conflict/setting pairings: how, what, and why. How do the two aspects work together? What do they do to each other? Why are they together?

Weaving together the three main aspects of your writing will make your writing feel more connected. You won’t feel like your characters are placed in a random location and have things happening to them. When you weave the people in with the places and plot, you justify what happens to whom, wherever they are.

For your convenience, I’ve also made a simplified triangular relationship chart for this concept!