What Your Family and Friends Won’t Tell You about Your Writing

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Man ListeningWhy is it that the only people who seem to love your prose are those without the power to purchase and publish it?

Your parents love it.

Your friends are impressed.

Your spouse thinks it ought to be a movie.

To them you can do no wrong. You have a gift, a knack—they don’t know how you do it.

They wish they could turn a phrase they way you do, come up with that word, paint literary pictures like that, show life the way it really is.

When I was a teenager, not even old enough to drive yet, I read my sports reporting to my mother on the way to the newspaper office. I regaled her with a dozen different adjectives for how high school wrestlers in as many weight classes defeated their opponents.

She shook her head admiringly as I breathlessly listed Jones defeating Smith, Green obliterating Miller, Tilden smashing Burke, Caldwell drilling Vickers, and on and on.

With her waiting in the parking lot, I took the stairs two by two, bounding into the sports editor’s office, triumphantly handing him my copy and settling in across from him.

He would always kindly break from whatever he was doing, give my story a quick read, and tell me what worked and what didn’t, trying to make a writer of me.

Somehow he was never as impressed as Mom—and today was no exception.

He could tell I was excited about this one, and he would have been within his rights to knock me down a few pegs. Which he did. But, fortunately for me, he was kind about it.

“All these adjectives are creative,” he said, as he quickly deleted them with his blue pencil. “But they’re not the story. You’re intruding. You’ve been following this team for what, five weeks now?”

“Six.”

“And they’re undefeated, right? So, were any of these individual matches upsets?”

I pointed out of a couple. One kid suffered his first loss and another surprised last year’s state champ by beating him.

“There’s your story. What’d the coach say?”

“Said it was good for Burke to take a tough loss and that he still thinks he could win the state title.”

“Let’s get that in there. Telling who beat who is good, and showing by how much is news. How they did it and how hard it was, that’s interesting. But you showing off your command of adjectives, not so much, follow me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Looks like eight of your twelve original inches will survive this week, so that’s eight bucks in your pocket. Next week give me the story of the meet, and give me a feature on Burke with quotes from the coach—another ten inches. And cover the basketball game between Maine East and Proviso West.”

Bottom line: your loved ones and friends are encouragers, but they’re amateurs.

We writers need to take our cues and our input from people in the know, people in the business, the ones who know what sells. They know that good writing is not a thing of adjectives and adverbs and creative writers intruding to show off their vocabularies and turns of phrase.

Good writing—writing that sells—is a thing of crisp nouns and verbs that communicate simply and directly and tell a story people can understand.

That doesn’t mean it has to be boring or carry no music. But the writer has to stay off the stage and out of the way and let the content be king.

When you need a compliment, a pat on the back, an expression of love and encouragement, show your stuff to someone who loves you and cares about you.

But when you want to write better, to learn and grow and communicate and, yes, sell—show it to an editor.

And then listen.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from someone in the business?

  • DavidSluka

    I learned that there’s a difference between what you write in your diary and what moves the story along. The latter is much more concise. Great post, Jerry.

    • Excellent point, David, for which you are known. :)

  • Debby Lee

    Somewhere along the line, I learned that my writing didn’t have to be perfect the first time around. I gave myself permission to write a junky first draft, and then grow from there.

    • And that sped you up, I’ll bet, Debby, as it did me. I used to labor over my first drafts, editing as I went. What torture. Then I learned to turn off my internal editor and get that first draft down like a hunk of meat on the table to be carved later. Freeing.

  • Elisa

    That writing is called writing for a reason…you have to write. (Crazy!) But I must say your post brought back the sting of humiliation when after reading my first book my mother-in-law said, “Well, it is no best-seller.” Ouch! Now I am wondering if she loves me or not! Lol.

    • Wow, a loved one who tells the truth! Cherish that. But then she fits the stereotype of a mother-in-law. :)

  • My Two Cents

    My friend, a highly successful New York Times best-selling author, taught me the benefit of using stronger adjectives, like “She slid the hot pan on the counter” rather than “She set the hot pan down quickly.” Seems elementary but it was just what I needed. :) Thanks for another great article!

    • You mean a stronger verb?

      • My Two Cents

        {blushing in shame} Yes, sir! And fewer adjectives.

  • Tawn O’Connor

    When I worked on Capitol Hill, I showed my first freelance article to our Press Secretary, Ron Brackin. “It’s a good book report,” he told me, “but there’s no flavor in it.” Then he talked me through it, as professionally and as kindly as your editor did, and I rewrote it. That lesson helped me get a full-time job with the magazine later. I’ll always be grateful to Ron, a generous and fine writer (“Son of Hamas”).

  • Sooooo true. Jerry, you​ missed one “encourager”: your child’s English teachers. Just because they know and teach the language does not mean they know jack about publishing. The absolute best advice I’ve gotten has been from authors, agents and editors I’ve met at writing workshops such as the Antioch Writers’ Workshop​ and Midwest Writers Workshop​. Two of the magazine editors I’ve worked with, Linda Vaccariello​ and Kitty Morgan​, have helped me develop my voice: something that I have to turn on and off depending on the genre in which I’m writing.

    • You’re so right, Wendy. I had great English teachers I can even name: Barry Dopp in 8th grade, June Stevens when I was both a freshman and a senior in high school, and Richard Carey (my journalism teacher in high school). Also Henry Roepken, a journalism prof at Harper College.

      But I had some bad ones too (whom I will not name), who encouraged lots of adjectives and flowery turns of phrase. When I followed their advice and was harshly edited by my newspaper and magazine bosses, they would grumble, “Who taught you this, some unpublished creative writing teacher?”

      • Oh, you’re right, Jerry: I had lots of great English teachers, such as Homer Meade (who even did I Ching with me) in high school and lots of mediocre ones I shall not name. But from many I took away at least one gem of knowledge. For example, Cynthia Pease (also a high school teacher) criticized me for using “chum” and “protagonist” in the same paper. Until that time, I had never thought about the consistency of the language formality. I can’t remember much else about Mrs. Pease (except that she loved “Great Expectations”), but given that she had been teaching for 20+ years in the 1970s, I would certainly not ask her for publishing advice (if she’s alive!).

      • trueblue

        Hi Jerry, I too had Henry Roepken @ Harper and he was a big influence on my writing and my overall career choice. Whenever I’m having trouble putting words out there, I think of him saying “Don’t dwell – just get something down. Just run it out at the ol’ mill” :). Another influence for me was attending one of Kurt Vonnegut’s few workshop appearances where he chastised us young aspiring authors and writers, saying we should never waste words. “Go home tonight, get rid of the first chapter – heck maybe even the second…and start your story at THAT point.” -Nancy Ragont

  • Linda Peters

    I learned that my characters don’t need to be beautiful or handsome. The reader wants to know if there is beauty on the inside, even if it is hidden under a pile of manure.

    • Good point, Linda. You wouldn’t be able to tell that from most movies, would you? But from real life, a different story…

  • Shelly Denison

    The biggest tip I have heard from three different professionals, you
    (Jerry Jenkins), Stephen King, & Donald Miller: Too much description or too
    many words are the sign of an amateur. Especially today when people’s attention
    span is very short. It has helped me to learn to just say what needs to be said
    in a natural way. I think of it as painting a picture (with words) vs. creating
    an experience. I want the reader to feel what the character is feeling. Too many
    words take them out of the experience. (In my extremely humble opinion.) :)

    How do you find the right people to give you feedback if you don’t know
    any professionals?

    • Good question, Shelly. Look for options online. There are some economical critique services available, and I hope to begin offering some here eventually.

      • Linda Buice

        Where are these economical critique services?

  • The most important things I know are the ones I’ve learned from you :)
    The last webinar gave me dozens of pieces of knowledge.
    I’ve learned that the character is everything. You have to make your reader willing to become the character for an entire novel. To do that, you need to make it so real they can see, hear, and taste it.
    Also, another great piece of advice I’ve taken is to not try to start your career with a novel. I’ve been focusing more on my other works, and building a platform (I’m waiting on a couple of editors right now!) I’ve also been rejected half a dozen times, so I know personally what you mean about editors.
    My parents are the best. They fully support my desire to be a writer, and they help me a lot, especially with my queries. But editors see something that nobody, not even you, can see.
    Thanks for the advice – I’m going to check for adjective count in my manuscript.
    “Whatsoever ye do, do unto the Glory of God.”
    Reagan

  • Daisy Sohne

    This has been a great encouragement to me: “…the only way I know to become a good writer is to be a bad writer and keep on improving…I write only when I have something to say.” Thomas Sowell from Some Thoughts About Writing

  • Frances Wilson

    I agree that family and friends not the right people to critique, due to bias and the tendency to overlook faults. In the literal world, if I have a medical problem, I would not ask non-professionals. Rather, I would seek a Doctor who knows. I have learned from those who have written, and you are challenging me to give my best. Thanks Jerry

  • Cathy Gross

    Let action and dialogue move your story rather than description. Then self-edit ruthlessly! You, Doc Hensley, and James Scott Bell taught us at a Writer’s Bootcamp. It was thrilling to learn so much in just a couple of days. You are all excellent educators. Thank you!

  • Patricia E. Foster

    Great advice. Just one problem: I don’t know any editors or people in the business to ask. It’s a spin on the old: “How do you get your first job when you don’t have any experience and how do you get any experience, if no one will give you a job?” Any suggestions how I meet some of these unbiased critics that will give me an honest critique of my writing?

    • Google writers critique groups in your area and then ask for credits. Where have they published and how successful have they been? There will be lots of beginners, naturally, but look for a few experts so it isn’t entirely the blind leading the blind.

      • Patricia E. Foster

        Thanks, Jerry. I’ll check into it today.

  • Mary Kay

    One very useful tip re: sentence construction: Put phrases in the order that allows the reader to build the mental image seamlessly. Not “Throw the cow over the fence some hay.”

  • Less is more.

  • Janice G

    I appreciated learning about ‘on the nose writing’ from you, Jerry.

  • Mary Altshuller

    From you, Jerry. You said to get the meat on the table, then do the carving. Even though I’m on vacation, I brought work along including James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure and other reference books on my subject.

    • Hard to do better than James Scott Bell, Mary. :)

  • Jacqueline McCauley

    Thanks, I needed to hear that. I will follow this advice.

  • Ed

    Lead the reader to the edge, but let their imagination fly them over the canyon.

  • I shared part of memoir with my critique group. After everyone told me how much they likes my piece, the most accomplished writer in our group, looked at me with the kindest smile and said, “But I need to feel you bleed.” I’ll never forget that.

  • PhilipAMoore

    my problem is finding a reliable beta readers. sure my mom like my stories in fact she has helped me with the rewriting but i want to get my books polished. I keep hear this needs editing but not how it needs editing . I have a man who reads the chapters but checks me for content and logic. he is not pro. but he is useful wich is valuable to the process. with some feed back and this may sound trite feels like I getting pat on the head and at a boy . if i wanted someone to kiss my butt I would slather it in Alpo and buy a dog . I have enjoyed reading your blogs by the one on self editing was fascinating.