Writers come to us when they're passionate about a subject or excited to share a powerful message. They're often way past ready to jump into the long and difficult work of turning their ideas into a real, and really good, book.
Typically, we listen to their (brilliant) ideas and then ask a few questions. Among these are questions about audience: Who is this book for? Who will be persuaded by this argument and this evidence? Who wants to be moved by this message?
For many of our authors, the reflexive answer is “everybody.”
Writers of nonfiction often assume that the wider they spread their net, the more readers they’ll capture. While it’s part of our job to convince them that this isn’t the case, it’s not an easy argument. Why not write your book for everybody? Why not offer something with wide appeal? Why not aim to attract both your employee’s millennial social-worker daughter and your grandmother’s middle-aged podcast-loving male nurse?
The answer is simple: Because you can’t. You can’t shape your message—in a real and genuine and sincere way—so that it resonates at a deep level with absolutely everyone. The more you try to broaden its appeal, the thinner and more stretched and more general your message becomes. (And if your message is general, it's just not necessary to spend the time and expend the effort on writing it into a book.)
In fact, if you’re writing your book for everybody, nobody will read it. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. Reading a book is an intimate act. We invite the authorial voice into our head, and we allow ourselves to be moved by its argument. If the voice feels artificial and insincere, or if the argument doesn't seem applicable, we close ourselves to the message and toss the book into an abyss of forgetfulness.
So we encourage our writers to get specific in the book development stage—really specific. When we ask them to think about their audience and how their message will land, we crib from Seth Godin’s “Marketing in Five Steps” (from This Is Marketing):
For some writers, it feels ugly to overlay marketing and bookmaking. But a marketing mindset is valuable. By focusing on the needs and dreams of a small group of people, you ensure that your “thing”—your story and your message—are meaningful because they absolutely and truly resonate with someone.
Tidying Up, the Netflix show based on Marie Kondo’s blockbuster book, debuted this month to many, many hot takes. Even if you haven’t read the book, you still probably know that the show anticipates (and fuels) January’s zeitgeist by helping hoarder-lite accumulators streamline their possessions.
The many responses to Marie Kondo, her book, her method, and her show are worth a read. There is something delightful about the method’s animistic approach to stuff. It feels right that every single one of our possessions should spark something—whether that’s joy, usefulness, hope…or just recognition. But, as others (and Twitter) have vociferously argued, there’s also something depressing about radically minimizing our possessions according to our current feelings. Times and feelings, perceptions of “sparks” and “joy,” change. All the time!
Whether you’re all in on KonMari mania or you’ve chosen to hold on to that double-stack tower of unread books, KonMari can be usefully applied to writing projects. While it’s the rare MS Word snippet that inherently “sparks joy,” KonMari’s emphasis on disciplined organization—decanting, disposing, and developing a daily habit—can help productively compose a jumbled Google doc.
Consider the KonMari-approved method of decanting household products into simple containers. This, argues Kondo, reduces the extraneous “noise” of packaging and frees the product to be, as designer William Morris once advised, beautiful and useful. Beginning a project by freeing it from the confines of its context—perhaps by using Webjets, Scrivener, a new doc, a legal pad, or Nabokov-approved notecards—can help you see your work in a new way, enabling you to push it in more generative directions.
Or try the KonMari argument for guilt-free disposal. Because writing can be so difficult, the material we produce often feels sacred. We might think that a great paragraph—even if it doesn’t really work—is just too good to let go. While these sentences might spark joy, their sparks are obstructive rather than clarifying. If you can, delete your fragmentary darlings with impunity. If you absolutely can’t, create a separate file for fragments. You may find a use for them yet.
KonMari also suggests developing a daily habit of cleaning out your bag. We already know that organized writing aids sleep, so when it comes to your projects, this isn’t just helpful, it’s healthy. At the end of your work, go back over what you’ve written. Determine what works and what doesn’t. File the uselessly joyful/joyfully useless fragments in a separate doc. Run spellcheck and format the page. Note what still needs to be outsourced (and sourced), and create a list of writing to-dos for the next session. Like the concept of parking your car downhill, when you make a habit of regularly tidying up your work, you position yourself for maximum momentum.
Tragically, the KonMari method is not going to transform your project into a minimalist masterpiece. Big projects will probably always require baroque amounts of blood, sweat, and tears to be magically transformative. But the KonMari method offers easy-to-execute organizing habits that can help every writer.
If you’re like me (meaning a tech-curious but otherwise regular computer user), new web apps can inspire a bit of excitement. New always promises to be more fun or beautiful or useful than old, but I usually realize and pretty quickly that the new app doesn’t address a need I have, and it quickly disappears into the ether.
Not so with Webjets! Webjets, which I first read about in Kai Brach’s newsletter Dense Discovery, is a mood-board-esque desktop for your desktop. It’s a bit like Pinterest, or Pocket, or Evernote, or a variety of other visually organized bookmarking and note-taking tools. But it’s also broader and much more dexterous. Basically Webjets is an easy-to-use interactive canvas that lets you drag, drop, and arrange images, videos, live links, docs—any type of file—and then organize, connect, and annotate everything in a (limited) variety of different ways.
For example, if you're working on a speech or a presentation, you could fill your canvas with thumbnail links of your subject matter. You could then attach other links (like particularly apt comments or tweets or relevant op-eds), other images (like a grabs from previous presentations), and text-based responses (like lists of audience questions) onto the images themselves.
This is helpful, and in some surprisingly deep ways. If you're looking to repurpose or refresh a project, Webjets provides an engaging format through which to envision your work. If you’re looking to gain insights or access points into stubborn questions, Webjets can help you reorganize your files in new ways (like lists, cards, folders, or mind maps). If you’re looking to collaborate with a partner or a team, Webjets lets you share your screen for pretty efficient (and frankly very fun) collaborative brainstorming sessions.
Did I need a new way to envision and brainstorm new projects? In fact, yes! My old way of brainstorming cannot even be called a “way”; it’s certainly not efficient; and it’s not at all conducive to structured collaboration. As we work on bigger, more collaborative projects at MWS, Webjets offers a narrative snapshot that is more comprehensive and more dynamic than a linear or written description.
The question of whether or not Webjets aids productivity is harder to answer. On the one hand, it will undoubtedly add to the bottomline of time spent brainstorming and collaborating. On the other hand, if it means the end result is a smarter and more creative project, then I'll happily take it. Have you used Webjets? Tell me more.
As part of the Do-More/Do-Less banner I’ve unfurled for 2019, I’m revisiting Jane Friedman’s book The Business of Being A Writer. Friedman, whose Twitter bio declares that she knows “far too much about the publishing industry,” is the cofounder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house newsletter about publishing.
Her book gives a comprehensive overview of professional writing and pragmatic, utterly helpful advice. While it’s an ideal reference for anyone dipping a toe into the world of professional writing, the insight and advice ripples outward to other professionals, too.
Take, for instance, Friedman’s injunction to avoid wasting someone’s time. For writers, a pitch to an unresearched editor, to an ill-chosen agent, or to an unsuitable publication is not a hail-mary strategy—it’s a waste of the reader's time and a waste of the writer’s time.
This is the case for all types of pitch-makers. You might be pitching a report to shareholders, a book to an agent, an argument to an audience, a grant to a grantor, or a professional background to an interviewer. In each case, your aspiration should be for your audience to consider the time they spend with you and your work to be worthwhile.
You will gain their appreciation by knowing that audience not as an indistinct bulk but as a single person. Recognizing your audience as a single (and actual) person makes it easier to undertake the work of understanding their professional background, needs, and aspirations. Only then can you determine if your work (or your speech or your grant) really is a good fit. Can you give this person something they need? If yes, then you can succinctly and persuasively explain what you have to offer.
This type of reconnaissance isn’t as fuzzy as it sounds. You don’t have to divine motivations (though you may want to). You simply have to turn to Google to trace your audience’s past work and current efforts. The time you spend—no matter your pitch, no matter your audience—will always be well-spent.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.