Tag Archives: writing tips

black and white shot of audience from stage

Why does anyone care what you write?

Why does anyone care what you write?

How to not lose an audience

black and white shot of audience from stage

CC image “Audience @ LeWeb 11 Les Docks-9308” courtesy of OFFICIAL LEWEB PHOTOS on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The single most heinous crime you can commit as an author—and the one most likely to lose you readership—is to make the whole story about you, and you alone, and to forget your readers.

But wait, you say. What if I’m writing a memoir, or a book that builds on my own personal experience? Surely that’s about me!

Not so. Your memoir or the details of your experience are interesting to your readers because of how it relates to their lives and experiences. Your readers care about what your book offers to them. You are purely incidental. Unless you are Michelle Obama, no one cares.

Be the reader

Think about yourself. What’s the first question you ask yourself when you think about whether you want to read a book?

Is this interesting?

When you read a book, you answer the question in the affirmative. If you skip it, the answer is no. Now ask yourself:

Why is it interesting?
What makes this book interesting?

This is the key to your audience.

Write down the titles of the last three books you read. Below the title, write what made that book interesting to you. Maybe you love books that make the technical accessible; you love books that inspire; you love books with actionable information; you love books with great characters; you love books that create alternate worlds you can lose yourself in.

Books are about the reader first. This is usually obvious to all of us whenever we’re reading a book…and we often forget it when we write one.

Don’t forget your audience

You the writer love what you are writing about. Whether your book is about sea urchins or is a fantasy novel, you’re mostly thinking about yourself. It’s easy, while you are writing, to get caught up in the story and forget those other people, your readers.

I see this happen a lot in early in early drafts. This is normal and perfectly fine—as long as we fix it before going to press. The most common ways writers forget their audiences are:

Nonfiction: while telling an anecdote or giving an example to illustrate a point, the writer keeps adding awesome details, and five or maybe ten pages later finally runs out of ways to express how cool s/he found all of this information.

Fiction: in writing a scene, the writer discovers that a secondary character’s backstory needs fifteen pages of manuscript space, or gets lost in a love poem describing the setting, where we have no paragraph breaks for several pages.

This is where the editor comes in and asks you why it’s all there. This is code for, “Why would the reader find this interesting/need to know this information, at this particular point in time, or in this way?”

After you finish an early draft, turn around to look at your audience. Bring the focus back to the reader. What are they going to do with this information? How would they relate to it? What questions would they have?

In nonfiction, you can directly ask your audience questions. That’s one way of turning to look at them. In fiction, generally we need to be more subtle. Does what we wrote make sense only in our heads? We may need beta readers to give us feedback.

The good news is, you can use your “whys” as a reader to help you build a wonderful book as a writer. Go back to the lists I had you make on the last three books you read. If you were to put together a list of whys for the readers of your book, what would that look like? What do you want your readers to say?

The bottom line

No matter how autobiographical your story is, your book is never about you in the way you think. If it was, you could keep a diary and be done with it. Why are you publishing?

This is a very, very important point from an editorial perspective. Readers, like all other humans, appreciate when we pay attention to them. If the story was clearly written for you the author and it’s an accident that other readers stumble into your monologue, how long do you think they’ll stick around? Treat them with respect. Build your book for them, as well as for yourself.

You may need to stop writing to finish your book

You may need to stop writing to finish your book

(or: a counterintuitive way to succeed)

road work ahead sign plus relax people, I think we'll be OK

A good motto. CC image “Relax” courtesy of Martha Soukup on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Introspection is frowned upon by our goal-oriented, fast-paced, and productivity-minded culture.

We all want to know how to get things done. We want to know how to get them done better, in less time, and with a bigger impact. Doing doing doing.

This is especially true during the end-of-year holidays. Wouldn’t a few worker elves be great?

Unfortunately, completing a book doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes, we need to stop writing and literally spend time staring into space, or playing. What better time to remember how to stop and take a breath than during what is meant to be a restful and celebratory time of year?

The writing habit

If you’ve been on my blog before, you’ve read about the single best way to write your book, which is to write (see: “pretending you don’t need to work on your book every day”).

Write every day. Make writing a habit.

You’ve read this before and now you’re wondering why I’m telling you to stop.

Writing sometimes means doing things that don’t look exactly like the activity we all know as writing, and it sometimes means letting go of being “productive.”

Writing is a creative act

Writing may feel like a business item or a job to you, but a part of it is always a creative exercise. Because of this, truths about creativity apply, even when you write a book about dog-training or how to grow a business.

One of these truths is: sometimes you have to do nothing for a while, to get something done.

Tell me whether you’ve had the following experience: you have a looming deadline. For days, you struggle with the final tasks and doubt you’ll ever meet the deadline. There’s one especially thorny issue you can’t figure out. After putting in a fourteen-hour day (or what feels like it), you give up in disgust and leave. You go home and vent to one of your friends or your significant other. A few more days go by while you play ostrich with your deadline. Instead of working on it, you clean the house, organize your desk, and buy greeting cards for your second cousins once removed in Singapore whom you haven’t seen since you were eight years old.

The next day, you realize you know the answer to the problem, and nothing has ever been so easy.

This is how writing often works.

The secret is that when you stop focusing on being productive, and let your mind wander, you’re more receptive to solutions that sit outside your current line of thinking.

Stop being productive

You might find yourself in front of the computer, producing nothing, and growling under your breath from frustration. If this happens while are you trying to get into a writing habit (see link above), I recommend you power through. Your best plan of action is to sit there for the appointed time, and suffer. Eventually, you’ll be writing.

If this happens in the middle of a productive stretch and after you’ve made writing a habit, I recommend that you take a break.

Step away from the computer, and do something else—preferably an activity that lets part of your brain roam free. Good activities include going for a walk, doing the laundry, sweeping, mowing the lawn, playing with the pet or the grandkids…you get the idea. Bad activities include complicated work of any kind, or watching TV/Netflix.

Do not try to be “productive” during this time. You’ve already thought a lot about your writing. Now let your subconscious have room to breathe. You could be surprised with the results.

The bottom line

There’s something about endings that makes us a little crazy. The end of the year, end of the quarter, end of the month… At this time of year, when it seems like all our schedules are blowing up and absolutely every known errand in the universe needs to be done before December 25th or 31st, STOP.

If you haven’t started your writing habit yet, this time of year is a tough place to start.

If you’ve got a good writing habit going, it will survive the next few weeks.

The more you force the issue, the less joy you’ll have in the process of writing, in the idea of your book—and more importantly, in your life and in whatever holidays you celebrate. It may be you need to stop writing now, in order to finish your book later.

== == ==

I’d love to hear how you might cultivate your writing habit with a spirit of rest, this season. Leave me a comment below, or drop me a line. Then enjoy the break!

Top 3 Ways You Sabotage Your Book

The Top 3 Ways You Sabotage Your Book

pencil broken in the middle

CC image frustration courtesy of Eric on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

How many of you get up in the morning thinking of new ways you can sabotage your book?

What about when you meet your friends for a cup of coffee or a drink—do you discuss how you can make sure your book will never see the light of day?

Or, no. I bet it’s more like this: you revel in how easy the writing life is and how much you enjoy sitting in front of a blank page on a regular basis with the task of creating something interesting, entertaining, informative, inspiring, or just plain coherent. Yes, that’s it.

What’s that, you say? That’s not you at all? Then how can you explain the following bad habits you get into? Yes, I’m looking at you, kid. If you’ve ever thought about writing a book, this is you.

You may not realize how you are sabotaging your book

After all, you have great intentions. You want to write the best, most interesting, highest-grossing, greatest business-building, fanbase-to-rival-J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter kind of book. And yet, and yet…

Some acts of sabotage are blatant (hours spent on Facebook or cleaning your toilet—every day). Some are more subtle. The top three ways that you sabotage your book are:

  1. Expecting perfection.
  2. Talking too much about your book.
  3. Pretending you don’t need to work on it every day.

Expecting perfection for every word you write

First drafts suck. There’s no way around it. Sure, you may have a great paragraph here and there, maybe even a stretch of three or four. But the draft itself has glaring flaws. Flaws so neon-bright that you need sunglasses for the simple act of looking at your manuscript. You stare at those flaws the way kids look at Christmas toy displays in shop windows: endless, motionless fascination, alternating with tantrums.

This is the best way to never finish your book.

A first draft is a FIRST DRAFT. When you compare your first draft to the published works of [insert your favorite bestseller/author millionaire here], you are comparing fig leaves to the Empire State Building. Stop. The Empire State Building looked like a hot mess when they first started building it—a hole in the ground, for goodness’ sake.

Accept the process and realize that you are starting with a hole in the ground, but that every day, as you build it, it’ll get better. Accept your book for what it is—a work in progress.

Talking too much about your book (and not writing it)

I can already hear the protests. “But we were told we should start marketing it before we finish writing!” “But I want to get my friends’ advice/support!” “But I’m so excited about it and want to share!”

Yes, I understand you. And yes, you should be talking about your book—in the right way.

Fiction writers may be more familiar with this warning than nonfiction writers. After all, craft books galore warn about this, including On Writing (yes, I’m talking about Stephen King again; there’s a reason). The more often you talk about your book, and the more specific detail you cover, with more people, repeatedly, the more you dissipate your creative energy and drain out the inherent drive you have to write that book. The more you talk about it, the less need you will feel to put it down on paper. You’ve already done part of what a book does: share your information and your passion with others. Stop this madness.

Nonfiction writers can also fall into this trap. You talk about your book and all your useful information diverts into informational one-on-ones, speech prep, and asides. Where, in fact, is your book?

You don’t need to be sworn to secrecy about your book. Let your colleagues know you’re writing it, and ask for advice. But keep it short—make it a teaser trailer. Don’t spill the beans on the complete plot. Those great ideas you keep having—write them down. Save them for the manuscript.

Pretending you don’t need to work on your book every day*

Trust me, the more breaks you take while writing, the harder it will be for you to write. That lost time is more than just the week you decided to binge-watch full seasons of The Walking Dead or livestream the heavyweight bout (and all the undercards). You lose more time than what you see on your calendar when you take breaks from your book. Each break means that much more time getting back up to speed on what in the heck you were doing before you stopped writing.

In some way, you need to work on your book every day. Keep it top of mind. Put together an outline. Brainstorm examples or case studies or character back story. Spend a day recording your thoughts verbally instead of writing them down, or record yourself reading parts of an earlier chapter, and listen to how it sounds. Make notes.

You want your readers to pay careful attention, don’t you? Well, so should you.

*It is good and healthy to take one day off every week. I even accept “every day” as Monday-Friday. But don’t skip more than a weekend’s worth of time with your book.

The bottom line

Are you guilty of any of these sabotaging traps? My bet is you are. If you need to, write them on a sticky note and paste wherever you work on your book. Yes, you can do multiple stickies. Stop the sabotage, and write that book.

Repetition vs Reiteration

Repetition vs Reiteration:
Show your reader what’s important without boring them to death

rows of empty white folding chairs

CC image Harvard Graduation courtesy of Andrew Malone on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

How many of you can remember specific information after hearing or reading it only once? How about if I asked you about that information again next week? Next month? Two years from now?

A select few people on earth may have perfect total recall, but most of us don’t. We remember information from hearing or reading about it multiple times. This is the principle behind regular rotation on a radio playlist, behind advertising, and the power behind an article that goes viral on the internet.

The same principle goes for your book. Chances are, you need to spell out a lot more information than you think, and you have more opportunities to highlight plot points than you realize. The key to achieving this is to understand the difference between repetition and reiteration. Continue reading

5 Tips on Writing from an Editor

5 Tips on Writing from an Editor

Don't talk. Type.

CC image “Put Your Product Where Your Mouth Is” courtesy of Joseph O’Connell on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Working as an editor, I regularly meet with people who have a lot of anxiety, and therefore also questions, about writing.

My work puts me in close proximity with writers (and people who don’t call themselves writers but still write, as a business choice or corollary to public speaking, for example). From this vantage point, I offer you the following tips.

Tip #1: Writing and editing are two different animals

The same way that producing a song recording in a studio is different from writing (or performing) the actual song. If there was only one, most important tip for me to give you about writing, this would be it.

Because of this, don’t try to do both at the same time. Stephen King says it perfectly in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.

The work often changes shape as you go. Even if you started from an outline (common for nonfiction writers), you may discover that certain things work or don’t, or that other questions arise, while writing. If you start editing while writing, you’ll lack clarity about WHAT story you are actually telling. And the story will lack cohesion.

Plus it’s really, really hard to finish writing if you keep stopping to edit yourself.

Tip #2: Find the habits that best work for you

Every writer’s work habits and process look different. If you go online and google “writing tips,” or “habits to become a successful writer,” you’ll find a wealth of suggestions. Some of these contradict each other. That’s because no two people are alike.

Some writers swear by getting up before dawn and pounding out 2,000 words. Others will suggest you sit down to write for at least X amount of minutes every day.

I am not a morning person, so I assure you, I would never get my writing done at 5 AM. However, this does work really well for some people. The key is to find the habits that best work for you. What will you sustain, and in turn, what will sustain you as a writer? If you are a 5 AM-er, more power to you!

What habits create the best routine for you? If you are writing regularly, that’s success.

Tip #3: You will end up writing more (sometimes many more) words than you use in the end

This is an irrefutable truth about writing. No first draft ever equals the finished product. Inevitably, through the process of revision, words get added, words get cut—sometimes a lot of words.

I’ve had clients who feel frustrated because they have spent what they feel is a lot of time writing before they came to understand what they were writing about—what their focus was. If this sounds like you, know that this is not only a normal, but beneficial step in the writing process.

We can’t properly see what needs to be cut until we see what exactly we have. Think of it like a traditional sculpture: you start with a block of wood, or stone, and whittle away the pieces to bring out the final work of art.

Tip #4: You will write the end before you write the beginning

This may sound strange to people who haven’t done a lot of writing. The order of writing does not mirror the order of reading.

The easiest way to conceptualize this is to think of a mystery novel. The reader is trying to figure out the mystery. Along the way, the author gives clues—sometimes misleading ones. The whole time, the AUTHOR knows whodunit. Do you think the author wrote the mystery novel in the order in which you are reading it?

In the same way, writers need to write the end of the story or the book in order to know how to properly begin. Don’t let this frighten you from starting to write at what you think is the beginning—know that you will be revisiting what the “beginning” is, after you’ve written the end.

Tip #5: Support is key

Writing, as many more famous, smarter people than I have already said, is a lonely business. It can be easy to feel isolated, and you might be frustrated by the problems you encounter and what you think you don’t know. The most important tip to keep your writing going is simply this: Find someone to talk to.

Your support can be official, such as a mentor, writing teacher, editor, or coach, or communal, such as with a writing workshop or mastermind group. Or your support can be much more informal—a good friend, someone in your family you trust.

Look after yourself while writing. You will benefit immensely from having someone to provide counsel, feedback, and perspective, and to commiserate with.

The bottom line

The more you make writing a habit, and the more you can separate writing and editing your work, the better a writer you will become. Accept that parts of the process feel frustrating and contradictory, such as writing long passages that get cut in the end. And make sure you have someone in your corner who can hold your hand, buy you a beer, or sit back while you rant, wild-eyed, about your frustrations. This is how you succeed.