Rules for writers; NPR critique; a HERO rises: Newsletter 17 April 2024

Newsletter 40: Principles for writing success, including why authoring is like sex; a new leader for embattled librarians; Meta fails to buy publisher; plus three people to follow and three books to read.

Rules of thumb for nonfiction authors

Everyone writes their own way. But after 50+ book projects and thousands of shorter nonfiction pieces, experience has taught me the value of rules of thumb: principles that nearly always apply. Violate these at the risk of your efficiency, your sanity, or your reputation.

If your audience is “everyone,” your audience is no one.

If you don’t know your audience, your writing will wander aimlessly.

Until you can explain your book in one short sentence, you don’t really know what you’re writing.

Books solve problems. Be clear on both the problem you’re solving and the solution you’re offering.

Answer these questions: Why this book? Why now? Why are you the one to write it? Write down your answers and refer to them throughout the process.

Titles need to grab your attention and be unique. The subtitle can explain what the book is about.

Books, including nonfiction and advice books, are stories. If you expect someone to read them, they must have openings, middles, surprising turns, and satisfying endings.

Gather case study stories. People like to read stories. Books without enough stories are, ultimately, boring.

Plan your promotion and marketing while you’re writing your book, if not earlier. An unpromoted book is a massive waste of effort. Readers need help to find your work.

Don’t bother with the introduction. Your book should introduce itself by being relevant. Start with stories and ideas, not a self-serving discussion of how you realized you needed to write a book.

Chapter 1 should scare the crap out of the reader: either they need to prepare for something scary, or they must recognize the opportunity to generate surprising success (or both).

Every chapter must answer a question that a reader has. Know the question before you start writing the chapter.

Start chapters with stories. That’s how you keep readers reading.

Repeating yourself is a sign that your book has a structural and organizational problem.

The word “you” is magical. Use it to write directly to your readers. It creates immediacy, intimacy, and trust with readers.

Vary sentence and paragraph length. Break long paragraphs up. Keep readers’ minds from wandering.

Passive voice in your writing is a symptom. Either you’re not clear on who is supposed to do what you’re recommending, you’re afraid of what you’re saying, or your mind has been polluted by reading too much academic writing.

Use “said” for most dialogue and quotes, not “shared,” “explained,” or other elaborate locutions. No one will notice that you’ve repeated “said” a lot.

Take it easy on the adverbs. Avoid exclamation points. Use profanity sparingly, if at all. Never write words in all caps. Clarity is more compelling than shouting and chest-beating.

Jargon narrows your audience. It doesn’t make you look smart, it makes readers feel stupid.

If you want a traditional publisher, you need a unique idea, great writing, and a well-supported marketing and publicity plan — and you need to assemble all of that into a killer proposal. Even then, you might not get picked up, and you might have to wait more than a year for publication. Traditional publishing still generates the highest visibility, but hybrid publishing and self-publishing are better choices for many authors.

When writing a draft, understand why you’re writing. Some writers write to work ideas out, knowing what they are writing may ultimately be scrapped. Others write drafts based on extensive planning. Both methods are fine, but don’t confuse them for each other.

If you work for a company, don’t write a book without checking with your managers about who owns the content — and how it might benefit the company.

Research takes at least twice as much time as writing. You wouldn’t bake a cake without assembling the ingredients first; don’t try to write without research.

Reserve 60- to 90-minute blocks in your schedule for writing. That’s how long it takes to get in flow, and writing created in flow is far superior.

The main point of editing is to make writing clearer, shorter, and less repetitive. A leaner book is always better.

Keep track of your word count. For nonfiction books, 40,000 words is short but pointed, 50,000 words is fine, 65,000 words is expansive, and anything longer than that is probably too long. If you needed to cut 10,000 words, where would you do it? If there’s an obvious answer to that question, then cut 10,000 words.

Use your table of contents as a planning tool. Yes, that means you need to have it roughed out before you write much.

Get a developmental editor. Perspective from a book expert is valuable. And no, your publisher probably isn’t going to provide the editorial feedback you need.

Unless you like conflict, chaos, and wasted effort, carefully design your collaboration, drafting, and review process with your coauthors, ghostwriters, and editors.

Graphics are a pain. If something goes wrong with your book, it’s probably because of a graphic. Including graphics may still be worth it, but don’t ignore the extra work involved with creating quality visuals.

If you use someone else’s idea, give them credit. Citing authoritative and original work makes you look smarter, while ripping off colleagues and competitors will make you a pariah.

Turn in a clean and complete manuscript to the publisher. That’s the best way to make sure book production stages don’t generate errors that end up in print.

Don’t lose your concentration on quality during copy editing and page layout. But don’t use those stages to add or change content, either.

Authors generally make more money from speeches, workshops, consulting, leads, or other related revenue streams than they do from book sales. So you need a plan for how to monetize your book.

Writing a book is like sex: the second time is a lot easier than the first, but there are still more things to learn every time you do it.

If you like this kind of advice, there’s a whole book of it available.

News for writers and others who think

Uri Berliner, a senior business editor at NPR wrote a scathing critique of the organization, claiming that it’s been trying to tell readers how to think — with a liberal slant. There are vast numbers of people now criticizing Berliner. But there’s not much commentary on the general decline of radio and the effects of conservative media telling everyone that America is in the grip of a woke frenzy promoted by mainstream outlets. I hope NPR takes a good look at itself, but it’s hard to stay true to your values when the whole audience is shifting beneath your feet.

Podcast host Carter Wilson reflects on what he’s learned from interviewing more than 150 writers about their lives and their work. Among his insights: writing continually gets easier, but it never gets easy.

Peter Shankman has launched HERO (help every reporter out), a successor to HARO (help a reporter out), a registry for experts ready to provide quotes to journalists.

There were more than 4,000 book bans in the first part of 2024, more than in all of 2023. Now librarians are facing prosecution for doing their essential work. The new president of the American Library Association, Raymond Pun, will have his work cut out for him.

Regarding the idea that Meta was considering buying Simon & Schuster just to get access to its books as training materials for AI: the CEO of the publisher said he had no idea anyone even had such a conversation.

Three people to follow

Natalie Nixon, font of endless insights about creativity.

Jules Polonetsky, top thought leader on privacy policy.

Jim Louderback, former TV host and current pied piper of the creator economy.

Three books to read

Pivotal: Creating Stability in an Uncertain World by Stephen Shapiro (Amplify, 2024). Strategy insights on what to change — and what not to — as the world shifts around you.

Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder by Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2024). A writer with the courage to take on religious fanaticism describes what happened when he was attacked in 2022 — and lost an eye in the process.

Arithmophobia: An Anthology of Mathematical Horror, edited by Robert Lewis (Polymath Press, 2024). No matter how much you hate math, it’s probably not as terrifying as these 13 horror stories.

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  1. So many gems, but I’ll comment on my favorite:

    Research takes at least twice as much time as writing. You wouldn’t bake a cake without assembling the ingredients first; don’t try to write without research.

    Absolutely. I’d argue that careful research, planning, and writing obviate the need for a developmental editor, but as usual we’re on the same page.

  2. “it’s hard to stay true to your values when the whole audience is shifting beneath your feet”

    This is an odd statement. Your values should not be founded on your audience. Establish your values, stick to them, and your audience will come to you. Nobody said it would be easy. You lose your audience when you don’t stick to your stated values – that’s a message to them that you have none, and you will give them no reason to follow you.