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.
As December’s performance winds up (or down, depending on your POV) and January creeps closer to center stage, I'm ready to give in to the annual tradition of the yearly critique.
Even if the timing feels a little arbitrary, I like reflecting back on work completed (or abandoned), projects finished (or started), and goals met (or missed). And of course, my favorite sentient frenemy—the algorithm—is always (always) there to helpfully remind me of books I've read, music I've listened to, miles I've logged, and social media moments I've posted.
Most of us count on the relative success (and/or failure) of this reportage to jumpstart new-year plans for productivity. And if my inbox is any indication, 2019 is going to be The Year for The Big Project. It’s the year to Become an Artist, to Find a New Job, to Run a Marathon, and possibly, to Write a Book.
I capitalize to make fun, but I’m a productivity adherent (if not [yet] a practitioner): I am most definitely creating a Google Sheets tracker for 2019.
Happily, though, the zeitgeist also suggests that 2019 might be a year for doing things differently.
For once this doesn’t appear to necessarily refer to a plan or program or workshop or webinar or other delivery mechanism for efficiently maximized production. Instead, it seems to refer to actually doing less to reach normative notions of success.
I’m all for it, especially after reading David W. Orr’s words from Ecological Literacy, recently excerpted by Tina Roth Eisenberg on Swiss Miss. The world, Orr writes, “desperately need[s] more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind…It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world more habitable and humane.”
In 2019, I for sure want to take on more projects, make more money, and accrue some tangible success, but more than that, I want to be less quantifiably busy and more qualitatively engaged in peacemaking and restoration, in practicing the moral courage required to make the world more habitable and more humane. I don’t yet know quite what this means, but I do know that you should join me. Do less in 2019! But also do more.
In a previous post, we talked about the different kinds of edits that professional editors can provide. But what does the process of working with an editor actually look like? Again, it depends on the type of edit. Here, we'll focus on developmental editing (for nonfiction books and documents, our specialty).
A developmental (or substantive) edit typically happens mid- or late-process. This is to say that you've got a draft, but you need support to map the (best) way forward. Having a professional set of eyes on your manuscript at this point means that you'll avoid going further down the wrong path, or getting attached to ideas or rhetorical moves that don't ultimately benefit your message (or your audience). And if you've hit a stumbling block in your writing process, there's no better way to get around it than working with a developmental editor. A developmental editor's job is to suss out big-picture concerns related to the manuscript's overall focus, purpose, argument, evidence, and organization.
In the broadest strokes, a good developmental editor will help you hone in on your message, refine your audience, and determine the best structure for your argument. This means identifying areas for elaboration (or areas where you veer off track), suggesting changes to organization (such as rearranging chapters or sections), and evaluating your tone and mode of addressing your audience (for consistency and suitability). A great developmental editor does this andshows you how to implement these changes in your manuscript.
For instance, when an author brings us a manuscript about leadership and cites their audience as ‘everybody,’ we work with the author to determine who among ‘everybody’ will be most impacted by the manuscript’s message. We then help shape that message to reach those readers, and we use this information to inform the rest of our edit.
Ultimately, a developmental edit should leave you with clear and actionable feedback for improving your document. At MWS, we provide both a written narrative of our broad-strokes evaluation, as well as specific queries and suggestions throughout the draft, via the "comments" function in Word or Google Docs (depending on the writer's preference). For particularly tricky manuscripts, or for early-stage work, we also include a developmental outline keyed to the manuscript.
Working with a developmental editor is seldom a one-and-done interaction. Depending on the parameters of an agreement, our work may include subsequent rounds of review or other types of follow-up.
We LOVE developmental edits (both performing and receiving them). In our experience, the days or weeks you spend working with a developmental editor will save the (exponentially greater) time (and frustration) of spinning your wheels in the drafting process, or of ending up with a finished product that feels like it misses the mark. It may seem like a significant step to add—and it is—but there's truly no more efficient way to ensure that you meet your goals for a big writing project.
Words matter. And I’m not just echoing the sentiments in Dictionary.com’s choice for word of the year.
Or, I’m echoing those sentiments, but by way of framing a project we're working on about climate truth.
The research required to complete the project is powerful—it makes the stakes of climate change clear and tangible, and it also illustrates the impact of language and usage on an incredibly high-stakes issue.
Most people implicitly know that if language doesn’t exactly shape the world, it nonetheless shapes our understanding of ourselves and our shared experiences. The fact that this knowledge is implicit (which is to say that it goes unexpressed) just makes it harder to really grasp how words can change comprehension.
The impact of language is more explicit in political discourse. Take “truthiness”—a word coined in 2005 to describe the tendency among politicians (and others) to vacillate on facts when politically expedient. In 2018, the phrase “fake news” is preferred, although it is most commonly deployed to undermine information with which the speaker does not agree, regardless of truth value. Both terms work to define “misinformation,” but in opposing ways that can change the sense of what constitutes “the truth.”
When it comes to climate change, Dr. Genevieve Gunther, director of endclimatescience.org, argues that language has shaped "the truth" so as to prevent action. In “Who is the We in ‘We Are Causing Climate Change?'” Gunther points out that the use of “we” defines a collective in which everyone is assigned equal blame. The problem? This is demonstrably false: Millions of people—in America and elsewhere—have nothing to do with a structural reliance on fossil fuel and couldn’t affect meaningful change no matter how hard they were to try.
While the job of “we” in any piece of writing is to establish a collective identity, by doing so, it establishes a boundary that can be coercive and—in the case of climate change—completely unhelpful. Using language that ensures that everyone is responsible effectively disables any one person from pointing out that some groups (people and entities) are a whole lot more responsible…and have the power to make the kind of real change that many, many people want.
It's but a tiny word in the comprehensive ocean of language, but—like "misinformation" and "the truth"—"we" turn out to matter quite a lot.
If you're prepping to labor over a big writing project, you've likely got a lot to consider. Maybe you're hammering out the logistics of collaboration. Maybe you're plotting your strategy to avoid self-handicapping during the writing process.
And maybe you're considering hiring a professional editor. For a high-stakes project, the cost–benefit analysis of working with a professional editor is a no-brainer. The right editor will efficiently and exponentially improve your final product. Full stop.
But, as with any specialized professional, the more you understand about what an editor can do for you, the more satisfied you’ll be. So, what will the process look like, and what should you expect in the end? That depends on a few things—first, on the type of edit you're hiring someone to perform.
While there's not always a hard-and-fast line between the different types of edits (a handsy copy editor might tend to veer into line edit territory, for instance—self-identifying here), make sure that you know what kind of edit you need, and that you and your editor are on the same page about those needs.
In a future post, we'll talk about what to expect in terms of the process of working with an editor.
“Well, if I work really hard and can’t get it done, at least I’ll know I just didn’t measure up.”
My client’s words about the project’s viability disturbed me. Not because I hadn’t heard them before--I hear them all the time!--but because they’re so misplaced.
Her words confirm the pretty much universal truth of every social scroll: When it comes to self-knowledge, it’s always the wrong people who think they know too little (uh, or too much). And I’m only slightly tongue-in-cheek about “universal truth,” too. So much research tells us that we frequently (maybe even usually) overestimate our abilities in some areas (Dunning-Krueger), while radically underestimating our abilities in others (Imposter Syndrome).
Of course, my client may not be suffering from anything at all, but she was certainly deploying a related (anti-)strategy--self-handicapping.
When a person self-handicaps, they put up obstacles to thwart their potential achievement. I might, for example, put off researching a project until it’s too late to do it at all. This (rather obliquely) lowers my own expectations and thus deactivates my potential anxiety—I didn’t give myself the time to do the necessary work, so it's no big shocker when it doesn’t go well.
In the case of my client, the anxiety produced by embarking on a giant, life-changing project seemed to cause her to self-handicap—lowering her bar for achievement at the outset to just “getting it done.”
I completely understand the sentiment, and not just because I’ve heard it before. I’ve felt it myself (who hasn’t?). But self-handicapping, a cognitive response to the anxiety caused by the strength of our desire for achievement, keeps us from succeeding, even when (especially when) we really want to. It may not seem like it has the capacity to thwart ambition and derail projects, but it absolutely does. I mean, the aim to “get it done”—ever for a big project—isn’t much of an aim at all.
There’s a better way to tamp down this kind of anxiety, and that’s to articulate your goals. It sounds new-agey, or maybe Big Magic-ky (sorry), but it’s actually the opposite. Naming what you want your project to achieve forces you to figure out why (sometimes if) your project matters to you. This seems like it would ratchet up anxiety intolerably, but in fact it helpfully delimits both the project and your goals. More importantly, it helps displace anxiety away from the project, ensuring that it functions as a vehicle and not itself an end.
Ultimately, if you have something that you want to create—something big—don’t tell yourself if doesn’t matter, or that all that matters is that you get it done. Instead, buckle down and articulate (to yourself, to a colleague, to a professional) why it matters and what, exactly, you want to achieve with it. I helped my client do this before doing anything else, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to soon report back on her mileage.
Sometimes (maybe often), a big or ambitious writing project can suffer esoteric emergencies.
A writer might experience a crisis of confidence (or might suddenly birth a punitive inner editor). A writer might experience a crisis of interest (an initial effluence dries up). A writer might experience a crisis of life’s mundane (or monumental) messiness.
Broken confidence, eclipsed interest, and interrupted work are annoyingly inevitable. Sometimes it’s pretty easy to ensure a project’s survival (if, by “pretty easy,” we agree to mean “biting a stick and bearing down through streams of sweat and tears”).
But sometimes these crises, when left untreated, threaten survival. For big, ambitious writing projects, there is no inoculation (for either project or writer), but a little preparation and a lot of triage can ameliorate some damage.
Preparation (if you’re like me) means: 1) reading the books on maximizing creative productivity, 2) prioritizing/scheduling your time, and 3) “mastering” the enigma of a balanced life. Also 4) making spreadsheets, to-do lists, and/or bullet journals (that will eventually/inevitably mock you as you miss deadline after [self-imposed] deadline).
Preparation is important, of course, but it’s probably best understood in the service of endurance (not success).
Triage is different, though. Triage helps you identify and treat your project’s emergent issues…and it’s actually more effective when it happens after you realize your project is gasping for life and in need of an SOS.
Triage often involves sending a particularly ill part of your project to a trusted friend—a good thinker with a respected readerly opinion (who will refrain from offering excessive and/or grad-school-style critique)—or to a smart, detached professional.
Who is this trusted confidante? Hard to tell! But merely sending a project out into the world forces it into a new environment where you can better diagnose and treat its problems. In some ways, it almost doesn’t matter if you reach the exactly right person.
Of course, in other ways, the exactly right person is much better than any old person, so take the opportunity to ask for a short evaluation. What works, what doesn’t, and what’s their best advice for treatment? Whether or not the you receive practical help, you’ve at least narrowed down your second-opinion pool.
The bad news is that for most writers, there’s is no cure for a big, ambitious project. It’s more like pyrotherapy: The fever must run its course. Help it along by finding the most effective treatment to minimize your pain and maximize your project’s vitality.
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.