Today I have two small bits of advice for writers, but first I want to answer Barb’s question about a writer’s voice. Barb writes, “I feel like it’s easy to engage with my class members when I teach and with friends when I write, but as soon as I start writing a book, I clam up. How can I take my teaching style and voice and transfer it to a non-fiction book?”

I’m not sure the process is any different for non-fiction than fiction, but here’s my take on it. First, I’d say that in writing a book, the most important thing is to just get it written. Don’t worry about voice right now. Don’t allow yourself to clam up. If you’ve got something to say in print (and obviously you do or you wouldn’t be writing a book), then just spit it out. This is why there’s such a thing as first drafts. Just get the thing written.

Then, in subsequent drafts, as you line edit, I think you’ll find yourself editing through your “voice” in your head. At that point, the voice will tell you how to revise sentences and paragraphs to match your voice. In Bird by Bird Anne Lamott talks about the necessity to write several pretty bad drafts before she’s ready to let anyone see her work in progress. I think that one of the problems she likely finds in those early drafts is that it isn’t fully her voice yet. Editing a manuscript into shape involves, in part, making it sound more like you. Each draft should bring you closer to perfecting your voice on paper.

I hope that helps. Others may chime in in the comments section.

Now let me mention my two bits of advice. The first tidbit harkens back to my previous entry about “beauty and depth” in writing. Sometimes authors hoard their good stuff. They think, Oh I don’t want to use that now. It’s too good. I’ll save that for later. That may be true on the rare occasion (and if that’s the case, jot it down in your writer’s notebook), but good writers realize that you should use the good stuff now and trust that the well will soon fill up again. Draw deeply and write deeply. The water is plentiful. The springs that feed the well are flowing steadily.

The second item has to do with a submission I received yesterday. The first sentence in the cover letter said the manuscript was “unique.” I know the author thinks that’s a plus, but often it’s a negative factor. The truth is that “unique” doesn’t often sell. Readers tend to enjoy favorite and time-tested genres or styles of writing. For instance, most of you fiction writers know that Amish fiction is still very strong in our market. That means that publishers are, for the most part, still looking for well-written Amish fiction. But well-written Amish fiction is no longer “unique.” As an editor, I’d much rather read that the manuscript you’re sending me will “appeal to readers who love Amish fiction” or “is in the tradition of Janette Oke.” Very few “unique” books make it to print and very few of those sell well.

Next time I want to answer some more questions. Michael Reynolds has five great questions (see them in the comments in my “Various and Sundry” entry). I’m going to save those for a more lengthy blog (so hang on Mike!) and move to Dana’s great question wherein she asks about “the worst mistakes in writing and how to avoid them; querying 101 and beyond.” I’ll try to get to Tami’s question too. And then a few others. I do appreciate the questions. They let me know what you’re most interested in. If you’ve asked a question and I’ve not answered it, ask again. I’m sometimes a bit absent-minded about these things.

10 replies
  1. Tim Riter says:

    Nick, Lamott’s book on writing is great, but I think she used a different term than “pretty bad.” 🙂

  2. Barb says:

    Nick, this is really freeing. I thought you had to worry about voice right from the beginning. A simple piece of advice, but I think it will make a huge difference for me since I can spend 5 minutes writing and re-writing a couple of sentences in a first draft. Thanks so much for responding to my question. I think it will make a big difference in my writing.

  3. Rick Barry says:

    Always enjoy reading your contributions, Nick. When I write, I never let anybody (not even my wife) read the first couple of drafts of a manuscript over my shoulder. No matter what I write, I already know the first version will be trash, and the second version will be slightly organized trash. I don’t want anyone to see my work until I’ve purged the really bad stuff and thoughtfully replaced it with something more artistic. One elementary school teacher tells her kids to start with a “sloppy copy” and then to polish it up later. That works for me.

  4. Heather Marsten says:

    Thank you for the comment about voice. Currently I’m writing in first person, but get nervous thinking about other voices. I think the more we read, the more words that are out of the proper voice will stand out.

    Thanks for your helpful columns.

  5. Tami Meier says:

    Thanks Nick,
    The intensity of this movie does build from here, but to focus on the question… Will the reader or viewer want to know more? Do these starts peak your interest as an editor and reader to want to read more?
    I think it may have been you or Chip MacGregor who recently directed his or your bloggers to read through a list of famous first liners. About half way through the list, these words popped in my mind. “Can you read?” “Call me Ishmael.” Listen to the similar sounds. I wanted to start the movie with these three words, “Can you read?” But it may need to start with the two adults at the door showing that they know each other by saying: “Hi Bill, come on in. I just about got your job done.” (The girls head off one way to the bedroom and the dad’s to the office. Then while the main character is reading to her new friend, back in the office, there is a scene where the visiting dad says: “Jerry, we left the house early this morning and I did not get a chance to feed my daughter breakfast, do you have some hot cereal I can cook up?”
    Jerry says: “Yeah, up in the cupboard just above the stove.” Then the girls walk into the kitchen. The main character, surprised to see a stranger, (her new friend’s dad) cooking in the kitchen. Then out-of-the-blue he asks, “Can you read the directions on how to make the cereal?” Intimidated, the main character is taken back by his request; with wheels turning in her head, she wonders how to tell him, how to cook the cereal from the picture she sees of a pan with steam coming up. Unsure of what to say, he then pressures her to answer the question by asked the second time, “Can you read this?” she answers, “No.”)
    Nick, does this help paint a better picture. I’m open to suggestions. Nick thanks again for the opportunity to learn. I appreciate your blog.

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