So You Want to Write an Article…

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

There comes a time in most every writer’s life when you want (or need) to write a short nonfiction article. Maybe it’s because you have a (brilliant, of course) idea for an article. Maybe it’s because you’ve been asked to contribute an article to a particular publication (go you, all sought after for your writing skilz). Maybe it’s because your writing resume is looking a bit thin, you want to bulk it up, and writing an article takes considerably less time than writing a book. Whatever the reason, how do you get started?

This is not the time to be all emo about writing. When you’re writing an article, you’re not writing for yourself. Or, I should say, you’re not writing only for yourself. You’re writing for yourself (always!) and others. Hopefully you already know yourself well. It’s the others you need to take the time to learn about.

What are the “writing for yourself” aspects of writing a nonfiction article?

Voice and style. Just because you’re writing an article doesn’t mean you should adopt a snooty tone or take on an uncomfortable style. When I’m teaching, I tell students to write like they talk—to use their own vernacular, not that of an imaginary academic. And you should write the way you normally write. Readers who are familiar with your style should recognize it in the article. Don’t think that you have to put on a suit of fancy words in order to sound authoritative. Your authority comes from being yourself.

Choosing a topic. As I tell students, always choose a topic you’re interested in. Readers can tell if a writer is really interested in their topic or if they just chose it because it’s trendy or because they thought it would be quick and easy. But it’s not enough just to pick a topic you’re interested in—it also has to interest the rest of your audience. And that’s where this article comes in.

This article will take you through six steps to developing an article with your audience in mind. If you already have an idea (potential topic) for your article, great; if you haven’t yet come up with one, that’s ok, too. You can start working through the steps with or without a specific topic in mind.

Background Image: Benjamin Reay/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

1. WHERE will you be submitting the article?

My answer: This is an Absolute Blank article for Toasted Cheese.

If you’ve been asked to contribute to a publication, you know specifically where the article is headed. But even if you don’t know for sure where your article is going to end up, you often have a good idea of the first place you plan to submit it: you read the publication and think your work would be a good fit or you’re responding to a call for submissions. In this case, tailor your article to your target publication, but also have one or two alternates in mind in case the first doesn’t work out.

If you don’t have any idea where you’re submitting: do some research and find some publications you like that accept submissions of articles the length/format you have in mind. Start with two or three potential markets. You want to give yourself some options, but at the same time you don’t want your article to become too generic.

If you have a potential topic in mind, consider whether your idea will work for your target publication. If it’s a general or broad topic, start thinking about how you can tailor or focus the article to suit the publication.

If you’re topic-less (or you’ve decided the one you initially chose won’t be a good fit): peruse back issues of your target publication and its website. Start brainstorming potential topics based on what you find there.

2. WHO is your audience?

My answer: TC’s audience consists of writers of all ages, including young writers.

You know what your target publication’s general theme is—maybe it’s writing or science or celebrity gossip—but do you know who actually reads this particular publication? A publication focused on writing might have a general audience of adult writers or it might be aimed at new writers, young writers, writers of particular genres (e.g. science fiction), or those who study or teach writing. Sometimes the publication will explicitly state who their readers are; other times you have to read between the lines. Here again, browsing back issues and the website can help you determine who will be reading your article. In this case, however, social media might be even more effective: head over to the publication’s social media pages and see who’s following them. This will give you a peek into their real audience.

If you have potential topic: revisit your topic and make sure it’s a fit with this audience. If the topic fits with the general theme of the publication, you’re probably good, but you may have to reframe your ideas for the particular audience. For example, an article on writing careers aimed at teens deciding what to major in at college/university would be framed differently than one aimed at middle-aged adults thinking about changing careers. (But keep in mind that once you’ve written your article for one audience, you can adapt it to suit a different audience.)

If you still haven’t pinned down a topic: continue brainstorming. Build on and refine the ideas you came up with in step one.

3. WHEN will the article be published?

My answer: This is going to be the February 2013 AB article.

If you’ve been asked to contribute or you’re answering a call for submissions you may know when your article will be published. In other cases, you may not know. Either way, you need to work with the information you have. Articles come in three basic types: timely, cyclical/seasonal, and timeless. Timely articles have a limited shelf-life. These are the kind of articles written in response to a current event. In today’s news cycle, articles on some topics are dated within twenty-four hours. Cyclical (or seasonal) articles are the ones that are appropriate at specific times of the year or every X years (e.g. leap year or election-themed articles). If you’re writing this type of article, advance planning is a must. Timeless articles are ones that could be published any time. They’re not going to have the zing of an article published twelve hours after the latest social media foofaraw, but they’re less stressful to write and easier to place. You can even stockpile them.

If you have an idea and you know when your article will be published, make sure the idea and its publication date are compatible. You may want to customize your article to look like it was tailor-made for that slot. If you don’t know when your article will be published, you’ll want to do the opposite: make sure that it’s not too focused on a holiday or event that will make it harder to place.

If you’re still mulling over ideas, knowing when your article will be published can help you narrow the ideas you’ve brainstormed. Maybe some will work for that date and others won’t. If you don’t know the publication date, same idea. Eliminate the ideas that are too tied to a particular season and focus in on the timeless ones.

4. WHY are you writing this article?

My answer: This article provides a step-by-step process for developing an article, with the goal of demystifying how to choose and frame a topic.

Here I don’t mean “why are you writing an article?” the answer to which may be “because someone asked me to,” “because it’ll look good on my resume” or “to get paid.” No. I’m not asking about its extrinsic value.

What I’m asking is why this article. What’s its intrinsic value, its significance? What’s your goal in writing it? What do you want to achieve? In other words, if someone came up to you and said “Why’d you write about that?” you should have an answer. The answer will depend on everything you’ve thought about up to now. The rationale for an article about the Oscars written for a pop culture blog that’s updated several times a day might be to gossip about Oscar night faux pas or dish about the dresses (goal: to provide amusing commentary on a current event) whereas one written for the Journal of Popular Culture, an academic journal published six times a year, might be to analyze the content of Oscar winners’ speeches cross-referenced with their career trajectories (goal: to unpack strategies employed by celebrities to maintain/increase/recover their status).

By now you should have a good idea of what you’re going to write about, how you’re going to frame it, and why you’ve made these decisions. If you’re still unsure about your topic choice, it’s time to pick the one that seems most promising, take it back to the beginning and run it through the steps. When you get back here, you should have an answer to “Why are you writing about that?”

5. WHAT is the one thing you want readers to take away from your article?

My answer: audience, audience, audience. Know who you’re writing for.

Of course, you are going to make more than one point in your article. Otherwise, it would be really short. But if a reader remembers just one thing from your article, what do you want it to be? Like the one-sentence synopsis or “elevator pitch” familiar to veterans of querying, your “one thing” encapsulates what your article is about.

Your answer to question four was your general rationale for writing your article. Your answer here is the specific thing you want readers to take away from it. If you’re dishing about Oscar dresses, it might be “sequined dresses are so last year,” which if readers absorb it, will pop into their head every time they see a photo of a celebrity in sequins, leading them to wonder if the celeb or their stylist is to blame for making such a dated choice, what repercussions will befall person-to-blame—and perhaps avoid making the same sartorial faux pas themselves. Your goal is to provide your readers with a succinct piece of information that they’ll remember—and can use and extrapolate on themselves. Like my example, your “one thing” might seem to be silly or superficial at first glance, but if you’ve chosen wisely, it will guide readers to make their own connections and discoveries.

If you don’t know what your one thing is, your idea might not be focused enough yet. Or maybe you’re not seeing the forest for the trees. Run your idea past a friend and ask them what one thing they think it’s about. If you’re protesting, thinking to yourself, “but, but, but I have six things I want readers to take away,” think again. What do your six things have in common? Consolidate. One thing.

6. HOW are you going to structure your article?

My answer: I chose the classic five Ws + one H (who, what, where, when, why, how) information-gathering approach. Because I envisioned these as steps, I decided to present the questions as a numbered list.

Will it be a question and answer format? Numbered or bullet points? Essay-style with headings? Something else? A combination? Often the subject matter will point you in one direction or another, e.g. if you’re interviewing someone, structuring your article as a Q+A makes sense.

Once you’ve decided on your format, construct the frame or skeleton of your article. Generate your interview questions, create your list, decide on your headings. Sometimes this step will require some research. If you’re doing an interview, for example, this would be a good time to research your subject so you can tailor your questions specifically to them. Other times building the framework of your article is easy (you know the points you want to cover) and any research you need to do can wait until you start to fill it in.

Now you’re nearing the end of this article and you’re thinking: but I haven’t written anything yet! No worries. You know where you’re submitting your article, who your audience is, when your article will be published (or you’ve ensured it will be publishable any time), why you’re writing it, what one thing you want readers to take away from it, and how you’re going to structure it. Filling in the details is the easy part. If you find yourself drifting, circle back to the six questions. And always remember who you’re writing for.

Final Poll Results

Non-Fiction Book Writing Seems Fun! Part II: Trying to Find a Fiancé

Absolute Blank

By Faith Watson (fmwrites)

Recap: A few months ago, when I finished up with Part I of this topic, Sell First, Write Later? Non-Fiction Book Writing Seems Like Fun!, I was gung-ho and ready to go, on the verge of fleshing out my straw-man idea for a non-fiction book. After preliminary research and careful consideration, I had selected a promising book idea of mine as my pet project.

My Unique Selling Proposition (USP) was compelling and concise: The Pilates Cue Guru: How to Make Magic with the Method is the only handbook for fitness instructors and Pilates teachers that specifically teaches creative ways to effectively cue all the different principles, exercises and goals of the Pilates method.

I settled on using guidelines and templates from two different reference books to create a proposal and the initial query letters. With my “presearch” now done, I was set to move on to the crafting phase: pull the query and a proposal outline together. I was lookin’ to get hitched. Who were my prospects and what would they want from me?

Background Image: JewelleryMonthly/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

The Pre-Proposal Period

Before I could query, I needed to research the market-at-large, identify possible selling statistics, and be able to provide my prospects with factual information on the audience for my title. The next step was to develop a list of potential publishers with similar titles or similar categories of books. The idea at this stage is to be able to speak knowledgably of publishers’ lists and specifically appeal to the readers of the queries. Finally, I needed to learn exactly what each of my publishing targets wanted to hear or see from me. Did they want sample chapters or just a query letter? Did I meet their stated criteria for authors?

Here what I learned as I made my way through these three steps of the pre-proposal period:

1. Selling statistics, my audience, and the market at large. A sound approach to finding out what sells is to go to a place where they are selling items similar to yours, and snoop around. There’s a reason the average grocery store carries a lot of flavored coffees and teas, but very few limburger-flavored coffees or eye-of-newt teas. The same applies to the books stocked on the shelves on a big chain book store, and what’s being sold on Since I’m a Pilates instructor, I also have an extra level of information at my fingertips among my professional references. I learned a lot by looking at my own office shelves and internet bookmarks, as well as at bookstores and online.

What I learned: Big chain stores stock one or two perennial favorites in the Pilates subsection of the Fitness and Exercise subsection of the Sports and Fitness aisle. They are written by well-known or well-respected instructors—trainers to the stars, or Pilates elders (original teachers). They are published by imprints of large publishing houses. Expanding my search to the yoga and other fitness categories, I found a similar pattern. The fitness books sold in stores and frequently bought online by consumers are “how to do” books, not “how to teach” books. This is the lay of the land at the point of sale.

Among my professional references are a few self-published books, and a few more published by specialty houses on behalf of large professional organizations. For example, certification exam study guides have been published by every reputable Pilates certifying body. A few illustrated guidebooks for Pilates anatomy, or books for teaching special populations (pre-natal Pilates, Pilates for seniors, and the like), also exist. You buy them through proprietary companies that also sell Pilates equipment and host national conventions. Joe Pilates’ original Return to Life through Contrology has been republished and is selling again, but mostly to instructors. I know Joe Pilates himself had quite a bit of trouble getting his book published; in 1998 it was updated and edited with the copyright assigned to Presentation Dynamics. Duly noted in my notebook of pre-proposal possibilities.

My takeaways: My title is not going to make it on consumer shelves. It’s a “how to teach” not a “how to do” book. It won’t be a public library staple, either. Its salability is going to be tied to either professional organizations’ interests (like the educational arms of large certifying bodies) or Pilates-related corporate interests (like how Weight Watchers and Yoga Journal added to their empires, which now include cookbooks and yoga kits respectively). This is not the greatest of realizations. What I need is the Pilates equivalent of a university press or a niche-merchandising brand.

I already had the specifics on my audience—I am part of my audience—and I remain prepared with numbers on new instructors in training, how many certified in the last x amount of years, etc. These figures are published in trade journals with some regularity. The good news is Pilates is still popular and the number of teachers and participants continues to grow.

I also found something out about my market that seems positive —there really are no other books out there quite like mine. I’d be filling a hole.

Your takeaways: If you want to craft a non-fiction book proposal, determine what books your book would be next to on store and library shelves, then see how your book fits in. Look at your favorite books in your category to find out who published them, and when. Keep notes on every publisher of several books related to or comparable to yours. This list will later help you connect positives for your queries to editors (they’ve published three books about coffee beans but never one on tea leaves; hole in the market I will fill) or negatives for your own notes (dozens of comments and reviews on the coffee-related books online but no one ever comments on the tea books). Finally, pour through your trade journals. Look for books being advertised in the back pages, read book reviews, and find out if the journal publishers also publish books.

2. Potential publishers. First I looked up the most promising potential publishers from my master list of books and their publishers from Step 1 above. I found two possibilities with actual websites and guidelines for authors. Both are smaller presses that might be interested in a Pilates title, but have none so far. I ran into several dead ends on the web as well. Dead ends, because the publishers were either too big to post submission guidelines on their websites, or they no longer seemed to exist. A few were swallowed up by big guys, and some others were just not findable on the internet.

Next, I went back to the bookstore and pulled the most recent Writer’s Market off the shelf and spent time cross-referencing the potential publishers I had left on my list. Yes, I did that at the bookstore. I bought an overpriced latte so I didn’t feel too guilty about it. I must say, the market for writers has changed since I last looked in “The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published” ten years ago. I learned a lot flipping through it.

What I learned: 2011 Writer’s Market features a chart of seven publishers that are masters of the domains of dozens of others they have merged into their own universes. It’s just a list of names really, so you don’t get specifics in Writer’s Market about submitting to, say, Random House or any of its 70+ imprints. I learned a few trainers-to-the-stars had books published by bigger houses. How did they do that? I’ll guess: an agent. That, and/or a reputation with a recognizable celebrity or sports name as a testimonial. I looked up several of the smaller publishers I had searched for on the internet, and found most of them not to be present in Writer’s Market, either.

My takeaways: I was left with the couple of maybes I found online and in Writer’s Market, and a protruding pout. Back to the drawing board to figure how I can get hooked up with my “Pilates equivalent of a university press or a niche-merchandising brand.”

Your takeaways: You can pout, but you have to keep trying till you’ve exhausted your avenues. (The latte does help.) A few months ago, I thought that non-fiction book writing seemed like “fun!” but I’m here to tell you it feels a lot more like “work!” at this stage. Keep your trusted notebook of possibilities at hand. There’s more to do.

2.5. More Potential Publishers. Since I only found three promising potential publishers, instead of the eight that was my goal, I decided to travel a little farther down the professional trade road. I began with a couple of magazines and online publications I myself read and refer to. PilatesStyle magazine has a readership that overlaps my book’s market—niche consumer along with a lot of instructors, as it is the only Pilates-specific magazine out there. I found some articles on the path to teaching, and featuring other teachers. Nothing much new as far as book publishing goes, though. Next I went to IDEA, the world’s largest association of fitness professionals, of which I am a member. Their collection of articles on mind-body fitness pursuits is hard to beat. I search through the giant Inner IDEA website for anything related to my book proposal, and guess what comes up? An article: “The Art of Cuing” by Rael Ishowitz. He’s pretty famous in the modern Pilates world.

What I learned: It’s a lovely article. No, it doesn’t do what I say my book is going to do, exactly. Phew. Instead, it’s a more general article on why cuing is important and it discusses how one can improve one’s instruction with attention to the art of cuing. So yeah, there’s some overlap for sure. But not a lot of specifics. (This is all me talking to myself after reading the article.) My book has specifics. As my USP says, it’s a handbook. For people to refer to when trying to develop better cues for exercises, or to get ideas on new ways to help people visualize exercises—

—Uh-ohhh. A revelation. I think I know why there’s a hole and it hasn’t been filled with a book. It’s not the market, and it’s not the audience, and it’s not even the subject—it’s the function of the book. The function of the book (I repeat to myself, nodding for emphasis) in relation to the subject and the audience. How will this book be used, and when? I can answer that question myself (I am my audience, after all) in two words. It won’t. Instructors will take an illustrated guide to pre-natal exercises off their shelf and use them to plan such classes ahead of time. They will take down their anatomy book to look up a muscle group that is giving someone trouble. They will read their study guides before testing or retesting and they will read Joe Pilates’ book to understand the historical context of the method.

They won’t pull out a little book that lists several effective and creative ways to talk about the shoulders while teaching The Rollup. They can’t refer to this book during class and they won’t think of consulting something like that in between classes when they’re researching anatomy or prenatal exercises. It’s a reference book that can’t be referenced when you need it. They won’t be going about their business thinking “If only I could think of something different than ‘string of pearls’ when cuing the spine.” They won’t.

My takeaways: I’m okay, I’m okay. Even though I’ve come this far only to realize I cannot propose my book because I, as my own audience, know that I won’t read my book of lists of ways to cue the body in Pilates classes. I will however go to a workshop or seminar and have an engaging expert speak to me on the topic for an hour or so… and I will read an article or a series of articles on this topic to spark some ideas and give me a few new cues to try out. I will even save the article or series of articles and use it to help inspire other teachers who I might be training… but (wah!) I won’t read my own book. Time to outline my workshop idea. Time to research magazines and online sources that will publish my article (IDEA and PilatesStyle come to mind!).

Your takeaways: When developing your non-fiction book idea, aside from considering your expertise as the author, the market for your topic, your audience’s needs, trends in publishing for your genre, the potential for selling this book, and your USP, also consider the function of your book. How and when will this book be used in the format you’re suggesting? An encyclopedia of tea leaves is one thing, but The Tourist’s Pictorial Guide to Selecting Teas at any Market in Asia better be a slim little thing—like maybe a brochure that an Asian tea company gives away.

Afterward: I still want to write a non-fiction book—a book that sells. I’ve got a new idea, the best one yet (I think), and I’m applying everything I’ve learned so far to develop it through to the official proposal period. So, there just might be a Part III on this topic, if all goes well and I find that “special someone” (a publisher willing to commit).

Final Poll Results

Sell First, Write Later? Non-Fiction Book Writing Seems Like Fun!

Absolute Blank

By Faith Watson (fmwrites)

Boy, was I jealous of Julie Powell when I saw the movie Julie & Julia. Writer on the side, loves to cook and eat, in the right place at the right time for her first little blog to become a popular blog, then become a book offer, then a bestseller, then a movie deal. Starring the greatest actress of our time.

I’ll take one of those, please. Yes, the one-hit wonder. That’s fine with me. Non-fiction you say? Mmmm. Even better, maybe. There doesn’t seem to be much of a market for my poetry after all, and I do have a couple of great ideas for non-fiction already brewing. One is handbook for Pilates instruction and the other is a self-help guidebook to personal health and wellness.

I also have this article brewing, the first of at least two to go along with the process of me aiming to become a published author of a non-fiction book. Make that a non-fiction book that sells.

Yes, I absolutely want to write a book in order to sell it; that’s my first established goal. I know making money off my book might be a premature idea. It sure was with all my past creative writing projects. I haven’t seen a cent from those pursuits, but I’m done questioning the desire to make money as a writer now. It seems like non-fiction is calling me to this task so I am going for it.

So, how does one go about writing a non-fiction book that sells?

Background Image: Matt|drift-words/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Step 1: Research to learn that answer.

Let me tell you what I did, and where I’m at. First, I thought about non-fiction book markets that I’m familiar with and feel I could sell in. Just gut feelings here. I want it to be somewhat easy to write my book. That’s right, I just said I want to make money and I want it to be somewhat easy. I am a businesswoman who works long hours at a physically and mentally demanding job as a fitness studio owner. I’m also writing on the side as a service journalist for an online content provider, delivering simple articles on health and fitness topics for extra money—my fledgling studio hasn’t put me in the black yet. I don’t want my book project to be the death of me. I want it to pay off. I want to be good at writing it, so I can maximize the return on my time investment. These are my demands.

Turns out, being good at writing non-fiction is one of the first conditions of writing a non-fiction book that sells. Lucky me! Intuitively, I’m on the right track. Research tells me I need to have loads of experience, or a special unique perspective, or clear expertise, to write this book and sell it. I believe I do.

My second step was to learn about what makes for a successful journey to non-fiction book publication from the three non-fiction books I bought on the subject. But first,

Step 1.5: Decide to go for it.

In between thinking about what I might write and buying my reference books, I stumbled upon this nugget of information that sent my vision into warp speed: In non-fiction, you don’t write the book first. You write a proposal, and that sells the book. It’s no joke—you sell the book before you write it!

Basically, I’ll have to create a marketing plan in order to sell my book. Woo hoo! It so happens I have a marketing background. I developed brand strategies for large clients and the communications that would support them. So my heart went aflutter. Perfect.

Step 2: Secure reference books to guide the process.

I looked at reviews and picked three highly-rated guides to help me understand winning ways to approach the non-fiction book market. After that it was full speed ahead, consulting the three books, comparing advice and taking notes. Here are the titles:

Wow! Non-fiction seems like fun!

There are a few different approaches and actual proposal outlines offered among these books. In Camenson’s book, she recommends crafting a stellar query letter and sending it simultaneously to several editors or agents at once. The query offers up the full proposal to those interested. Before all that, of course, comes the research that will show up in your proposal, and be used to beef up your query: competitive and similar titles, what makes your book unique in the market, who the target audience is, and more. This is the approach I already imagined.

In Lyon’s book, the same is recommended but with a few more caveats. There’s a lot to be said for the writer who can devote a lot of time to the business of being a writer. For example, going to conferences each year, to hopefully meet editors or agents, knowing other established writers, or being able to talk with someone who can give you a referral to an agent or editor. But for me, this book is pretty much my fourth job. Industry networking isn’t happening. I’m on my own, a little minnow in the Unsolicited Sea.

The idea of finding an agent always sets me back, I must admit. It seems just as hard to get an audience with an agent as with an editor. To me, it looks like an extra set of locked doors to break through. There’s other good stuff in Lyon’s book, but maybe this mindset isn’t the right match for me.

In Whalin’s book, a really strong case is made for finding an agent. I pout. But, at least he provides some direct resources for doing so, even if it is only a listing or association to scour for possibilities. Again, it’s like a double door—do I want to bother with a whole extra layer of researching agents and their clients so I can select which ones to query? No, but maybe I have to. I thought this process seemed more fun than all that.

Finally, I go back and find a better answer in Lyon’s book. She recommends trying to snag an agent only if your market is medium to large. Many non-fiction markets are small, and if your book is a specialty book best suited for a small publisher, an agent isn’t the way to go. This offers me clearer direction.

At the moment, I haven’t yet decided which of my two ideas for non-fiction books I’m talking about here. Both are a great start to being able to craft a solid proposal, but the Pilates instructors’ handbook is suited for a smaller specialty publisher while the self-help wellness guidebook would have more of a mass market appeal. I have to decide which one to work with.

Step 3: Decide on the approach.

For me, this means first picking the book idea I will work with, since I have more than one. They lend themselves to different approaches so I really can’t move forward until I commit to a path. Here’s what I’m choosing from:

  • A) The Pilates Cue Guru: How to Make Magic with the Method is the only handbook for fitness instructors and Pilates teachers that specifically teaches creative ways to effectively cue all the different principles, exercises and goals of the Pilates method. Cuing is vital to the success and enjoyment of mind-body exercise and Pilates in particular, which features core principles of concentration, precision, flow, and more.
  • B) Project Pick One Thing: Rediscovering, Caring For and Honoring Every Bit of Your Beautiful Self is an engaging, accessible health-and-wellness guidebook in an easy-to-reference format that encourages positive lifestyle changes among busy adults interested in self-improvement. It is the first book to offer a customizable approach to taking care of various aspects of body, mind and life in an informal encyclopedic style that is informative but never dry; credible, but not clinical.

I have chosen, for my first attempt to take place this year, to go with A.

I’m just a little deflated by my choice because I’m pretty sure B is the real money-maker of the two, and I’m not going to get on Oprah with choice A. Plus, Project Pick One Thing is the most developed of my ideas, as I have been blogging in that very format for months now, and could clearly demonstrate its direction and my writing style with samples from my posts. However, my blog doesn’t have that many readers at this point, and while I love it and believe in it, I feel that it’s a harder sell.

Remember, I not only want to write a non-fiction book that sells; first, I have to sell the proposal. I have strong credentials and experience as a Pilates instructor and my cuing is bar none (if I do say so myself), which is why I came up with the book idea in the first place. Every other instructor or advanced student I meet confirms my gift in this area. It will be easy to define the size of my potential market and I can personally back up book promotion with published articles, my award-winning Pilates studio, and testimonials.

After perusing my guidebooks and considering the approaches they recommend, I’ve decided to go straight for smaller or specialty publishers. I’ll use Camenson’s and Lyon’s approach to query first, simultaneously (in small batches), and get requests for my proposal. I’ll use a sample query from Lyon’s book (Page 211, Sidebar 14-1) as my template. It works well with my topic, although it is aimed at getting agent representation, so I’ll need to change that aim to getting a request for proposal from an editor.

I want to find eight potential publishers to query, two or three at a time. I’ll query my leading contender within the first batch I send out, with the goal of landing it, or learning from the ‘no.’

The format I’ll use for my proposal will be the one from Whalin’s book (Page 154, Figure 1). Its marketing-esque slant, including the call for a Unique Selling Proposition (USP), which I have already started to do in my overviews of A and B above, feel like the right fit for me.

Step 4: Find Publishers, Query the Editors.

Check back in October for a progress update!

Final Poll Results

Collecting Oral History: Interview with Elizabeth Jacoway

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

2007 was an interesting year in Little Rock, Arkansas; it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Central High School integration crisis and emotions were high. Books were published reflecting every perspective of the issue. Among the many books I read and authors I met during the year, the most refreshing and honest was Betsy Jacoway. Her book, Turn Away Thy Son, approached the crisis via interviews with the myriad people involved. As a transplanted Northerner, the whole integration issue seemed foreign to me, and her book gave me a perspective I would not otherwise have had. When Betsy had a book signing at the bookstore where I worked, we clicked and became friends. I am delighted that she would share with all of us the process of collecting oral history.

Collecting Oral History: Interview with Elizabeth Jacoway

A Brief Bio

Turn Away Thy Son Elizabeth Jacoway grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she attended the public schools. As a child she lived through the Little Rock desegregation crisis of 1957–1959, but wearing the blinders imposed on a privileged southern white female by the culture of segregation, she failed to “see” or to question what was happening in her community. Not until she landed in her first graduate seminar, conducted by George B. Tindall at the University of North Carolina, did she begin to examine the flawed and tragic history of her region. In the years since that painful introduction to the realities of her own past, her intellectual focus has been on the sources, dynamics and impact of racism in American life. After receiving a Ph.D. in southern history from the University of North Carolina in 1974, she taught at the University of Florida, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and Lyon College. Married and the mother of two grown sons, she has lived for thirty years in the small, Mississippi-delta community of Newport, Arkansas. In 2007 she published the book about Little Rock that she had been working on for thirty years, Turn Away Thy Son: Little Rock, The Crisis That Shocked the Nation (Free Press).

Turn Away Thy Son won the 2008 Willie Lee Rose Prize, awarded by the Southern Association for Women Historians for the best book in southern history by a woman, and also the 2008 William Booker Worthen Literary Prize, awarded by the Central Arkansas Library System.

TC: Could you explain how one goes about collecting oral history, and how one does that in a sensitive environment such as race relations. Just your process will be fine.

EJ: In 1976, I was very fortunate to receive a year-long NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] grant to inaugurate my study of the Little Rock Crisis. My graduate training had stressed the importance of starting with archival research rather than reading what other historians had written about my subject, so I simply dove into the papers of Daisy Bates (mentor to the Little Rock Nine) at the Wisconsin Historical Society, Brooks Hays (Congressman from Little Rock) at the JFK Library in Boston, and Dwight Eisenhower at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, KS. At that time, these were the major collections that were available to researchers, and as you can imagine, at each of them I encountered dramatically different impressions of the same events.

By the summer of that year I was able to compile a list of over a hundred people who were still alive and who had played significant roles in the Little Rock story, and I started studying the available literature about how to conduct an interview. That process would have been so much easier if I had had access to the Internet! As it was, I was bound to the library and to correspondence with such organizations as the Oral History Association.

Just about that time, the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina invited me to do interviews with Daisy Bates and Vivion Brewer (President of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools), and so I prepared ferociously and jumped in with both feet. Both interviews turned out to be delightful and incredibly revealing, and I was hooked. I realized immediately that the interview was a potential source of information that could not be found in any archive or library, and that it allowed the researcher to ask questions about things that no one had thought to record. Of course the interviewee always has his or her own biases and agendas, and everything he or she says has to be checked against archival materials, but the interviewee also brings an immediacy and interest to the subject that newspapers, diaries, and secondary accounts fail to convey.

After my Bates and Brewer interviews, I began to prepare enthusiastically for what I could see was going to be the best source of information for my book. I had already initiated a spin-off project that focused on the role of the South’s white businessmen in the Civil Rights Movement (eventually published by LSU Press as Southern Businessmen and Desegregation), so for the remainder of 1976 I interviewed over thirty of Little Rock’s business leaders from the 1957–1959 period, and I also interviewed (because he happened to be in town) Harry Ashmore, editor of the Arkansas Gazette during the crisis.

I had grown up in Little Rock, and most of these men responded to me favorably because they knew me. This was just twenty years after the crisis, and many Little Rock people still felt a defensiveness about it and a reluctance to talk to outsiders about it. My being an “insider” helped me gain access to these people, but undoubtedly it also blinded me to some of the nuances I might have noticed if I had come from a different cultural milieu.

At this point, I talked only to white people (except for the commissioned interview with Daisy Bates)—in part because I was focusing on the business leadership, but also because I did not have access to the black community, and I did not feel that I understood the issues and the feelings across that racial divide. I felt very keenly my limitations in being able to bridge that divide, both as a white person and as a woman.

A series of events converged to take me away from my focus on 1957—marriage, motherhood, a move away from Little Rock, two other book projects—as well as fear that I had waded into a study that was going to make a lot of people unhappy (which it has). At length, however, the Little Rock project just reached out and grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. To my great good fortune, my work led me into a friendship with Annie Abrams, one of Little Rock’s leading advocates of interracial harmony and an old friend of Daisy Bates. Through Annie, I developed routes of access into and a deepening understanding of black Little Rock. Also, Minnijean Brown Trickey (one of the Little Rock Nine) has become a real friend, as has Elizabeth Eckford (the stoic black child in the iconic photograph of Little Rock). I can’t pretend to understand the experiences these women have had, and an entirely different book could have been written from their perspectives, but through their generosity, they have helped me enormously to bridge the gap between my world and theirs. For me, it has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life.

TC: Betsy, this is great. I thank you.

Could you delve a little more into the actual process? From making contact, determining your questions, how you conducted the interviews—and if anyone said no (or just clammed up during the process) and how you dealt with that.

The actual interview process involves making contact, usually by phone, then followed up by letter with more of the specifics. I used to make extensive lists of questions before the interview, but I learned quickly that the interviewee will lead you off into uncharted waters and that the best approach is to let him or her run in the directions that suit them—at least until you have established rapport and given the interviewee a chance to get on record whatever he or she thinks is of importance.

The hardest part of the interview is to get your tape recording equipment set up quickly and as unobtrusively as possible, so that you and your interviewee can kind of forget about the fact that the tape is running (this always makes folks self-conscious). They will usually be nervous, so I always start with an open-ended question (one that can’t be answered with a yes or a no) and let them run with it as long as they want. Then I start to steer the interview into the subjects I want to be sure to cover. I save any delicate questions for the last quarter of the interview, and by then my subject is usually comfortable with me and willing to be forthcoming. Of course you never offer judgments on anything they share with you, you never contradict or correct them, and you never go off on tangents of your own (and sometimes that’s hard).

As a general rule, interviews should not last longer than an hour or so, because most folks get tired and lose interest in the process. The great exception to this rule is Justice Jim Johnson, who is now in his late eighties and who will still be going strong after three hours! I have interviewed him two dozen times because he is an absolute font of information, and also because he is incredibly honest with me—telling me the bad things about himself as well as the good! For my purposes, however, most people have told me all that I needed to know from them in about an hour.

Only one person has refused an interview with me, and that is Melba Patillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine. She wrote a powerful memoir titled Warriors Don’t Cry, and she thinks that’s all that needs to be said on the subject of the Little Rock crisis. She does not believe that someone who was not inside Central High School in 1957 could possibly have anything to say of value, but of course if she’s right, all historians would be out of business. I hope my book demonstrates that there are many perspectives on any historical moment, and that it broadens our understanding of the concept of “truth” to examine any incident from multiple points of view.

Governor Orval Faubus had been interviewed so many times by the time I sat down with him that I found his responses to be fairly rehearsed. I came back for a second interview ten or fifteen years later and tried to steer him away from some of the pat answers he had been giving for years. He said at one point “there are things that I know that I’m not going to tell you unless you ask me about them,” and of course this was very frustrating to me! Apparently he took many of his secrets to the grave.

The standard practice in the oral history business is for the researcher to have the interviewee sign a release form giving permission to quote from the interview and use it in subsequent printed work. Many presses require this legal documentation before agreeing to publish your work, and many libraries and archives require it as well before accepting interviews for deposit. After the interview, the researcher then transcribes the tapes (or pays someone to do it), and amazingly enough, one hour of tape requires about eight hours of transcribing. This is what makes oral history programs so expensive.

Ideally, the transcribed interview should be returned to the interviewee for editing and corrections, but since I did not have a staff to help me with this part of the process, I rarely returned my interviews for correction—and sometimes I did not even edit them myself. I conducted well over a hundred interviews, and maybe half of these yielded one or two tidbits each that found their way into the book.

The same is true of archival research. You might spend weeks in a particular collection and then use just one or two bits of information from that research trip. This can be very frustrating, but you have to immerse yourself in information to get a feel for how it all fits together. It is not unlike putting a puzzle together, or solving a mystery.

TC: This is wonderful, Betsy. What is your next project?

EJ: Well, my son is on the list for a kidney transplant and that is consuming all my time.

TC: You know our thoughts and prayers are with you. Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview.

Final Poll Results

Tips for Writing a Term Paper

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

These are general guidelines for writing a paper. The specific requirements of your field and your instructor’s directions of course trump anything said here.

Background Image: Heather|lectio/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

1. Topic

Start thinking about your topic early on. Do not leave this decision until the night before (or week after) the paper is due. If your instructor gives you a list of topics to choose from, try to find out which topics are most popular and avoid them.

Don’t underestimate the importance of topic choice. Not only does an original topic show your instructor that you’re interested and engaged in the material, but after marking twenty papers on [insert overdone topic here], your instructor will find your paper on [something different] very refreshing.

Pick a topic that you can be passionate about, not the one that seems easiest. Chances are, if you think a particular topic is easy, so will a whole bunch of other people. Remember: if you write your paper on the same topic as 30 (or 40 or 50) other people, your paper will be compared to theirs. Imagine your paper as the last one to be graded and choose accordingly.

2. Research

Do your research early. There is no excuse not to when you can do your research at home while wearing your pajamas!

Most library catalogs are online. Use your university’s library to find the books you need. Many libraries will allow you to put items on hold—meaning not only is the book saved for you (for a period of time), but when you go to pick it up, it’s already at the counter waiting for you—no need to search the stacks for it. If you need a book that your library doesn’t have, find out which libraries do have it at WorldCat and order it through interlibrary loan.

Most universities and colleges also give their students online access to academic journals. Use the appropriate databases (i.e. ones targeted to your field) to find articles. Another great resource is the Directory of Open Access Journals, a listing of free, online scientific and scholarly journals.

Be aware that databases will often turn up articles in fields that are related to—but that may differ in important respects from—your own. If you decide to use an article from a journal in another field, be sure to note any discrepancies that may come up between that field and your own.

Databases will also turn up non-academic articles (e.g. newspaper and magazine articles). While you should never rely on non-academic sources as your main source of information, they can be useful. For example, in many cases, it is appropriate to use non-academic sources to provide examples to illustrate your points. As well, reliable non-academic sources, such as general interest books or articles written by academics and well-researched articles in reputable magazines or newspapers, can be used to supplement information from your academic sources.

Avoid citing non-academic sources that have an obvious bias or lack meaningful research, e.g. pop culture books, opinion pieces in magazines or newspapers, industry publications, self-published work.

Unless your instructor specifically says it’s okay, don’t cite Wikipedia (or any other encyclopedia) in an academic paper. That doesn’t mean you can’t make use of it, however. Here are four good ways to use Wikipedia.

Finally, remember that referencing the course textbook or readings is an easy way to show that your paper is both relevant to the course material and an original piece of work.

3. Organization

Remember the five-paragraph format you learned in high school? Forget it. As long as your argument is clear, you can organize your essay any way you like, using as many paragraphs as you need.

Instead of filling your introduction with over-general background information, clearly state your thesis and give some indication of what you plan to do in the essay. Not only is this helpful for the reader, but it shows that you know what you’re writing about. (You might be surprised how many people don’t!)

A well-written essay synthesizes information from a number of sources in a way that supports the writer’s thesis and ideas. Do not simply summarize the ideas from one source, then summarize the ideas from another source, then summarize the ideas from a third source, etc.

4. Content

It’s fine to use first person to say things like “In this paper, I argue that…” or “Next, I will discuss…” (But please don’t say “We will…” There is only one of you.)

On the other hand, it’s not okay to make a bunch of unsubstantiated opinion statements. In an essay, you must support your arguments with evidence (facts and examples).

Examples can’t be mere lists of things. You must briefly describe each example and explain why it supports your argument—even if it seems obvious to you. The reader shouldn’t have to guess at why you think it’s important.

When you mention the name of an expert in your field, be sure to include enough context to show that you know who the person is. In the same vein, don’t forget to define important terms. Remember, you are showing the reader what you know. A good strategy is to write as if your reader is an intelligent person who is unfamiliar with your field.

Just because you know something doesn’t mean that it’s common knowledge. Common knowledge is something that most people know. When in doubt, cite a source for your information.

Also, often people believe something to be true when it is in fact not. Be sure to verify your information.

5. Mechanics

A term paper is not an IM conversation, a text message, or your Facebook wall. Part of writing a paper is demonstrating that you are able to write in a context-appropriate style. Avoid abbreviations, slang, and clichés.

Your instructor doesn’t ask you to use proper grammar and spelling, format your document in a certain way, or cite your sources to torture you. These details are what give your paper—and you, by extension—credibility. (Would you take seriously a paper that was riddled with typos, had obvious cut-and-pastes in several different fonts and colors, and lacked citations?) If that doesn’t convince you, keep in mind that a properly formatted paper is much easier to read that one that is rife with errors—and you want to keep your instructor’s reading experience as pleasant as possible.

Essays that will be printed are generally double-spaced, with new paragraphs indented. If you tend to write the drafts of your essays online-style (single-spaced, with a space between paragraphs) and double-space after the fact, don’t forget to remove the extra spaces between paragraphs before printing.

Keep within the word or page range your instructor gives you. Extra-wide margins, triple spacing, and large fonts don’t fool anyone.

Unless you are told otherwise, title pages are not numbered and the first page of writing is page 1 (not 2). If you don’t know how to make your word processor skip the page numbering on the first page of your document and/or start the page numbering at 1 on the second page of your document, take five minutes and figure it out.

If your paper has headings, move headings that end up at the bottom of a page to the top of the next page.

Cite your sources, both in text (in parenthetical citations) and in a References (a.k.a. Works Cited, Bibliography) section at the end of your paper. Provide sources for paraphrases as well as direct quotations. Direct quotations need a page number (use a paragraph number and/or section heading if page numbers aren’t available, as with online documents).

If in doubt, cite! Your instructor knows how to use Google, too. Getting caught plagiarizing is no fun.

Format citations in the style specified by your instructor. Yes, this can be a bit of a pain, especially if you’re in a department that uses one style and taking a class that uses a different style. However, remember you want to be kind to your instructor. It is much easier to check the completeness of citations if they are all in the same format. Style guides for many popular citation formats can be found online. For example, the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) has excellent MLA (humanities) and APA (social sciences) style guides.

Do capitalize proper names of people and places, brand names and trademarks. Do not randomly capitalize words in the middle of sentences just because you want to emphasize them.

Don’t use unnecessary quotation marks or abuse apostrophes. (If you don’t get why these sites are funny, it’s time to brush up on your grammar.)


Final Poll Results

A Surreal Life:
Interview with Stephen W. Simpson

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

“This is a huge honor. It’s also kind of surreal—I started posting my stuff on TC with my tail between my legs, feeling a bit unworthy.” This is how Steve Simpson prefaces his answers to the questions I posed to him in an email interview last month.

A few years ago when Steve a.k.a. Macfisto started posting at the Toasted Cheese forums, he was an unpublished writer working on his first novel—with all the typical insecurities that entails. He soon endeared himself to us with his consistently helpful posts at the forums and by writing a great article about finishing said novel. Eventually, we invited him to join the editorial board. For the past few years, Steve has judged the fall Three Cheers and a Tiger writing contest along with Boots and Ana.

These days it’s hard to imagine Steve feeling “unworthy.” In addition to his day job as a clinical psychologist, he writes two regular advice columns and recently had his first non-fiction book published. Two more are in the works. As if that’s not enough, he and his wife Shelley are also the parents of four toddlers.

Steve’s come a long way since his first tentative posts at Toasted Cheese and we at TC are immensely proud of his accomplishments. So when he said he was looking for a way to give back to the community, we couldn’t think of a better way than for him to share his journey and success with TC’s readers.

Toasted Cheese: I know you’re one of those Mac people. But come on, admit it, PC is funnier.

Stephen W. Simpson: The PC guy is funnier, but I bet it’s not so funny when you have to live with one of those skittish Windows boxes. At our last conference, Rick’s Dell wouldn’t play a DVD he needed to show. I handed him my Power Book and said, “When are you gonna learn?”

TC's Amazon Store TC: What’s not funny about tech snafus during presentations? That’s comedy gold!

Kidding aside, your first (published) book, co-authored with Ryan Howes and Richard Rupp, is What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew about Sex: A Guide for Christian Men. Tell us about the process of co-writing a book. Who came up with the idea? Did you actually write together or did you each write different parts of the book? I think our readers would also like to know how you found your publisher and how long the whole process—from idea to print—took.

SWS: All three of us came up with the idea, because sexuality is a focus in our clinical work. I already had an agent shopping around another book, and he agreed to represent us for this. Then he went MIA for over three months. He didn’t return calls or emails and then his answering machine was disconnected. I thought we’d been duped. Then, lo and behold, he pops up again and gets us a contract two months later.

We each wrote different chapters, then all three of us worked on making sure everything hung together. At first, I thought working with two other authors would make the process easier. We got the first draft together pretty fast, but after that a lot of, um, “discussion” took place about what we wanted the book to be. We even argued over the cover and title options the publisher gave us. In the end, however, I think the book is better for it. None of us could have written it alone.

The whole process, from the idea to having the book in our hands, took about two years.

TC: What Wives Wish… came out in April of this year. You and your wife Shelley became parents to quadruplets in May 2005. So that means the writing of the book coincided with the first two years of your children’s lives. Tell us how you managed to write a book while parenting four kids under two and maintaining a private practice (and you were teaching Clinical Psychology for a while there, too, I believe).

SWS: By sleeping only four hours a night and mainlining caffeine. We proposed the book before Shelley was pregnant. Though I was ecstatic when we got the contract, it really couldn’t have come at a worse time. I usually started work after our night nanny came on duty around 11 p.m. I read a warning on a can of Red Bull that said you shouldn’t drink more than four a day, but I discovered that it’s no problem if you don’t mind the heart palpitations. At work, sometimes I’d shut the door to my office and pass out on the couch.

Steve_Family.jpgShelley and Steve with the kids earlier this year. By the way, Shelley’s also a psychologist—the kids aren’t going to have a chance with teenage angst!

TC: I guess that experience must have taught you a lot about time management. You currently write two columns—”Ask the Man Shrink” and “God on the Ground”—for Divine Caroline. Tell us about the columns and explain how you find the time.

SWS: “Ask the Man Shrink” is what Dear Abby would write if she were a man and a wise-ass. Divine Caroline is a women’s web site, so the idea is to offer the male perspective along with advice from a psychologist. “God on the Ground” is about finding God in places that you wouldn’t expect. It’s my favorite of the two, but the harder to write. It forces me to pay attention to my spiritual life, because, if I don’t, the next column will suck.

I don’t “find” time to write—I make time. I block off at least two hours every Thursday afternoon. It helps that they’re paying me.

TC: So that’s the secret. Speaking of payment, you’ve already got contracts for two more books. Your second book is about dating for Christian men. Tell us about it.

SWS: A few years ago, there was an “anti-dating” movement in evangelical Christianity that said a couple should remain friends until they’re certain they want to get married. My book is a bit of a reaction to that. It’s also a bit of a con in that the book’s not totally about dating—it’s about identity and self-esteem. A lot of men (and women) believe that love will fix everything. The first part of the book talks about getting a life before you try to get a love life. The last part of the book helps Christian guys—and I can’t think of a better way to say this—have more “game.”

TC: You recently got your third book contract after an editor read an article you’d written about the first year with your quadruplets and asked for a book proposal (very cool!). This one is going to be a memoir. What can you tell us about it? Have you started writing it?

SWS: The working title (which I’m sure the publisher will change) is Quadruplets and Accomplices: Tales of a Cynic Assaulted by Joy. It describes the spiritual journey of someone (me) who starts off passionate about his faith, becomes cynical and disillusioned, and then discovers God again. Unlike a lot of Christian memoirs, this book talks about how difficult it is to be a Christian because it means having a relationship with a God who’s mysterious and sometimes aggravating. Shelley’s pregnancy and the first year with the quads was the pinnacle of my confusion and frustration with God, but then he used the experience to help me rediscover joy. A lot of people who were once excited about their faith become cynical after having hurtful experiences with religion. This book is for them.

I just finished the first draft. It’s due to the publisher the day after Labor Day, so I’ll be rewriting the rest of the summer.

TC: Which of your writing projects (whether complete, published, or in-progress) is your favorite and why?

SWS: So far, this memoir. I’ve had more fun writing it than anything else. I also think it’s a paradigm-changing work of genius, but that’s only because I just finished the first draft. I’ll probably hate it next week. Other than that, my Three Cheers and a Tiger story has a special place in my heart. I remember writing it—it was one of those times when the adrenaline keeps pumping, filling your brain with ideas. It was also my first fiction publication, something I’d been chasing for years. When I got the email saying that I’d won the contest, I grabbed Shelley and started dancing around the house.

TC: The memoir sounds like it shares a lot of themes with your first novel, Playing in the Thorns, which you wrote an Absolute Blank article about finishing in November 2003. Playing in the Thorns was very much a classic first novel, in that it was based on your own teenage experiences. How important was it for you to write that story? What’s happening with that project now? And do you have any new fiction in the works?

SWS: It was very important for me to write that novel, but for different reasons than I thought at the time. It was a bit therapeutic, of course, but it also taught me a ton about writing and publishing. Since I received well over a hundred rejection letters, I learned to keep my expectations low after sending off a query letter. Just ask my co-authors—whenever a publisher would look at our proposal, I’d tell them, “Don’t get your hopes up. It’s probably not going to happen.”

I’m afraid that first novel is quite dead. It has its moments, but it kinda sucks overall. If I ever want to tell that story, I’ll have to start over from scratch.

As far as fiction goes, I don’t have much going on. Over the last few years I’ve had to accept the fact that I’m a better nonfiction writer. That’s my focus right now. But I have notes for a short story I hope to start after I’m finished with the memoir. I love the writing I’m doing now, but publishing a novel is still the big dream. However, I’m not going to try to come up with an idea for one anymore. If I write another novel, it will be because an idea whacks me on the head that’s too good to ignore.

TC: In “The First Novel Marathon” you said that both marathon running and novel writing require “set[ting] a schedule and stick[ing] to it.” You must be good at setting schedules: you ran five marathons and finished a novel while working full-time, and finished What Wives Wish… while parenting four toddlers. Tell us about your writing habits. And have you run any marathons since the quadruplets arrived?

SWS: I’ve heard a lot of people say that you need to write every day, but I can’t do that. I need a reason to sit down at the computer, even if it’s just a fleeting inspiration for a short story or an article. Once I set my mind to a project, however. I set aside specific times to work. When I’m doing a first draft, I need chunks of at least two hours. Of course, getting a contract helps. When I’m getting paid something—even if it’s peanuts—it’s easier to give up time that I could be using to see clients. I used to write at night, but that’s a lot harder nowadays. I’m too wiped out at the end of the day to do much more than veg in front of the TV.

Marathons? Bah! Running 26 miles is cake compared to parenting four toddlers. Only recently did I start running regularly again. And it hurts more now! So no more marathons for the foreseeable future, though I’d like to do a half sometime in the next year.

TC: In your Divine Caroline bio, you say your favorite mistake was “parking my car in the wrong place at a U2 concert and then running into Bono and the Edge when I went to move it.” So we have to know: did they say anything to you? (Or you to them?) I know U2 is your favorite group, but what other music do you like? Do you listen to music while you write? What would your “Writing Mix” playlist have on it?

SWS: They signed autographs but didn’t say anything. I was too dumbfounded to talk, so I can’t blame them. As they were walking away, however, I lost control and shouted, “God bless you!” The Edge shook my hand, though. Haven’t washed it since.

Right now, I’m listening to Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible over and over. It’s the best record I’ve heard in years. In general, I’m an out of control music fan. I have 7,000 songs on my iPod. When I’m writing, I listen to either baroque music or hard rock like AC/DC. If I’m working on a long section and I know exactly where it’s going, the hard stuff helps me pound it out faster. If I’m finding my way, I don’t want anything too distracting.

TC: Baroque or AC/DC. That is a truly awesome juxtaposition.

In your TC bio, you say you were inspired to write by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Have any other writers inspired you since then? What current writers do you enjoy?

SWS: My favorite writers actually discourage me. For example, I love Robert Penn Warren and Orson Scott Card, but they leave me thinking, “I couldn’t write like that if there someone held a gun to my head.” Lately, because of the stuff I’m writing, I’ve been reading a lot of Anne Lamott. There’s also a guy named Rob Bell who writes about faith from a perspective similar to mine, except that he has about a hundred times more depth and wisdom. Every sitting with either Lamott or Bell includes moments of delight alternating with pangs of envy.

TC: In “The First Novel Marathon,” you mention Stephen King’s On Writing. What other resources (books or otherwise) have helped you with your writing?

SWS: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a good resource. Stunk and White’s Elements of Style is good to have on your shelf. Other than that, it’s all Toasted Cheese, baby.

TC: I can’t argue with any of those.

When you wrote your first (vampire!) story in seventh grade your teacher said, “Keep this up and you’ll write a novel someday.” You’ve said that her words “haunted” you, so you wrote a novel. How important was your teacher’s encouragement in terms of your writing? Has anyone else acted as a writing mentor for you?

SWS: If Mrs. Travis hadn’t said that to me, I don’t think I’d be answering your questions right now. It was the first time anyone ever said anything good about my writing. My handwriting was (um, is) atrocious, and that doesn’t go over well in grade school.

I’ve had several writing mentors—Miss Keen, my high school journalism teacher, had a huge impact. Some other friends and professors have been important. But Theryn Fleming [I did not pay him to say this. –TF] and the folks at Toasted Cheese have done more than all of them combined. I’m not even saying this to butter you up or plug TC—you guys changed the way I think about writing.

TC: Aw, thanks. It means a lot to hear that. Now, since I’m a little verklempt, let me turn it back to you.

You have an interesting and varied background: you started college with an interest in journalism, but ended up with an M.A. in Theology and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. Somehow you’ve managed to combine all three. There’s lots of advice out there for people writing “on the side,” that is, writing while working at an unrelated day job. What advice can you give people who are trying to combine writing with another career?

SWS: Four things: Structure, patience, passion and being open to feedback.

You need to make writing a structure in your life, even if it’s just a couple hours every week. Anne Lamott says that if you write just one paragraph a week, you’ll have a book in two years. You just have to be consistent. I’ve met so many people who say they want to write a book—and have the talent for it—but it never happens because they don’t make the time. If you have a career, family, school, etc., time to write a book isn’t going to suddenly materialize. You have to be intentional about it.

You also need patience. Expect rejection notices, especially at first. You also have to be willing to write for free. When you do get paid, it won’t be very much. Along these lines, you have to be passionate about writing. It almost needs to feel like you don’t have a choice. A lot of the publishing game is about perseverance.

Finally, you have to listen to what other people say about your writing. It’s great to hear compliments and praise, but constructive criticism is what makes you a better writer. Stephen King says that if ten people read your work and they all have different feedback, you can ignore all of them. But if five of them are complaining about the same thing, you need to fix it.

TC: Great advice. Well, that about wraps things up. Well, except for one final question…

(Steve and his co-author Ryan Howes host a weekly podcast at their website Fun Christian Sex. The week I tuned in, they were bemoaning the lack of hymns about sex. So, of course I had to ask…)

TC: Will you write us a hymn about sex? There don’t seem to be any.

SWS: Actually, Ryan is working on one. At our seminars, he plays a blues song about the traditional Christian view of sex. It’s titled, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”

TC: Thanks, Steve.

Final Poll Results

More than Just the Facts, Ma’am

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

When I was in junior high, I tried to read a book about druids. I really wanted to understand the culture. I was motivated to read. And after the end of the first few pages, I sat back and tried to figure out what I’d learned. I was upset to realize I couldn’t really remember anything at all about what I’d just read. I read the first few pages again, and still came up blank. I tried to read more, but I couldn’t seem to retain any information about the druids, or anything else. I ultimately shoved the book under my bed, and decided that even though I was highly literate when reading fiction, I was completely illiterate when it came to reading non-fiction. I’d had same problems with most of my textbooks. And with other non-fiction I’d tried to read. It was like trying to read in a foreign language I didn’t know.

Things didn’t improve much as I got older. It was a struggle to get through the technical articles I needed to read to get my degree. I avoided non-fiction books like the plague. What was it that made reading non-fiction so hard for me? I wasn’t stupid, I understood the words, and I even understood the facts most of the time, but I just couldn’t seem to understand how things fit together.

Eventually I realized the problem was not so much about my inability to read. I found some non-fiction books I had no trouble with at all. I discovered that the problems I had all stemmed from the presentation.

Background Image: delete08/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

There are two ways to write non-fiction. One way is to list a bunch of facts you want people to know about the topic. This was the way I most encountered. The other way is to turn the facts into an interconnected story. Guess which way led me to understand the material, and which way didn’t.

Non-fiction writers can often benefit from some of the same techniques fiction writers use. Both ultimately have the same goal: to tell a story. Non-fiction writers are just telling a story that has facts for its characters and themes of understanding for its plot lines. The best non-fiction writers craft and build a story as intricate as any classic novel. A science writer can turn the discoveries leading up to the development of a theory into a fascinating mystery story. A historian can make the people and events of an era as exciting as an action-adventure novel. Or they both can write a “Just the facts, Ma’am” book that ends up, at best, as a decent reference guide, and at worst, collecting dust under the bed with the druids.

When is a list of facts more than a list of facts? Consider the following two examples:

From Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life by Thomas J. Schlereth

In many rural, one-room elementary schools, a single teacher taught children from ages six through fourteen. Such schools usually had a rough tripartite division into beginning, intermediate, and advanced work, with reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic stressed in the first phase; geography and nature study in the second phase; and history and grammar included in the advanced phase. During a school day that lasted from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M. in the winter months, the students learned the four Rs, reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and recitation. McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were commonly the texts to be memorized and recited. Between 1836 and 1922, approximately 122 million copies of these readers were sold, with the strongest sales being from 1870 to 1890.


What memories surround this little Southern Maryland school house. For over a hundred years it has stood in its shady grove on the grounds of Christ Church in Port Republic, Maryland. Here came the youth of Calvert County to sit at wooden desks, to open red and tan McGuffy Readers, to write on slates and to eat mid-day meals from tin lunch pails. Here during recess games of “Annie Over” and “Bug in the Gully,” they raced shouting over the sun-dappled play ground. Here a single, dedicated teacher taught reading, writing and arithmetic to seven grades of boys and girls in a classroom at times so crowded that the young students had to sit along the edge of the teacher’s platform or cram them selves into the aisles between the desks, their warm bodies supplementing the heat that in winter radiated from the iron chunk stove in the center of the room.

The first example is from an historical overview of the American Victorian era. The second is from the Calvert County website about one of its tourist attractions. Both examples convey what a day in a one-room school house was like. While the first gives you some extra facts, the second gives you both facts and a sense of what those facts meant to people. Notice how the second example uses some fiction techniques—it turns the facts into a story and helps you to see them in a larger context rather than as isolated tidbits of information. The information is shown, not merely told. Admittedly the second example is intended to sell the one-room schoolhouse as a tourist attraction, but you can use the same sort of techniques to sell your ideas to a larger audience.

I bought the Schlereth book cited in the first example as background for a historical story I was thinking about writing. I found the lack of explicit connections between the facts made it impossible to get any feel for American Victorian society, however. I could get no grip on the thought patterns that were behind the statistics and facts he presented. Although the “thinking of the time” was part of the fact list, it was never woven into a story that made sense. Although they may have been accurate, the facts never felt real. (I pulled it out from under the bed when I was looking for examples for this article.)

How can you keep your brilliant research from collecting dust?

Here are a few suggestions on how to make your non-fiction more story-like and compelling:

  • Think of it as being a story.

Tell the story of the topic. Look over the flow of the content in the same way that you would analyze a fiction plot. Have you established the basic ideas before you get into the intricacies of all the details and exceptions to the rule? Are you too bogged down in trivial details? Where you can, show, don’t tell.

  • Identify the main themes.

Think about the major themes behind the facts. What ideas tie things together? If you are writing a text about physics, for example, you might keep bringing up the ideas of matter and energy and how they interact. If you are writing about a war, identify what political and social themes have had a large influence on the fighting.

  • Tie the facts into the themes.

Isolated facts are easily forgotten. If you use your main themes as the thread that weaves throughout your facts, you give people the structure and context they need to understand and remember the facts.

  • Connect, connect, connect.

People who are not experts in a subject aren’t able to make the same immediate connections that the experts make. In fact, there have been studies that show the ability to make many connections is what distinguishes the experts from the novices in subjects like physics. Explicitly help your audience make connections between themes and topics that you take for granted. Help make them experts by helping them to see connections they would otherwise miss.

Final Poll Results

How to NOT Write an Article

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

I’ve been writing this article inactively for about two months. Actively, I’ve been working on it for two solid weeks. I’m not going to finish it. I’m going to miss my deadline and let everyone down.

Or, I could stop now and cut my losses and write about how I’m not writing this article.

Background Image: Jack Zalium/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Don’t wait until the last minute.

I could have, and should have, signed up for and started this article in January. That’s when the editors get together and start prodding each other to come up with ideas. There are many of us, so we can pick and choose when we’d like to work on something. This year, I waited until everyone else had chosen because I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to write about. I should have simply signed up first, then decided on what to do. I would have had months to decide on something, work on something, and polish something. Instead, I stared at a blank page, forcing my writer mind down paths it didn’t want to go simply because I’m out of time.

Choose a wide topic.

My original topic for this article was choosing simple words and phrases. I have a writer friend who fancies herself a language expert. She has four dictionaries close to hand and uses them all in daily communications such as emails and blogs. Her writing is impossibly complex, archaic, and trouble for anyone without four dictionaries nearby. I decided this would be a great article, passing on the wisdom that most readers will put the book down if they can’t understand it—if reading it is work, not joy. But all I really had to say I could sum up in a few simple words, as evidenced by this one paragraph. I couldn’t think of anything else to say once I’d gotten the basics on the page. The article simply fizzled out.

Ignore the distractions.

Once you start writing your first draft, don’t stop. Don’t get up and make pancakes, don’t turn the TV on just for a minute, don’t play with the kitten, and leave the email box alone. Writing inspiration is very flighty and it can leave as quickly as it arrived. Sit down and stay down until everything you wanted to say is on the page.

Plan ahead.

This is different from not waiting until the last minute. I had a minor day surgery I needed to have done and it was scheduled just a week before this deadline. Before the surgery, I managed to write two paragraphs and couldn’t get anything else out. I was focused on the event itself and couldn’t see too far beyond it. What I should have done at this point was plan for my failure and ask someone else to write a backup article. They would have been more than happy to help, considering the circumstances. I should have planned a backup article as I planned my ride home from the hospital.

Don’t be afraid of change.

If something isn’t working, stop working on it and start working on something that will work. This article is coming to me much easier than the original. I know already that this article is the one that will be printed. The other will go into the ‘archives’ on my computer to wait until the light of inspiration slices through my head and I can finish it.

Find your voice.

I notice that this article sounds just like me. I am not as concerned with sounding like a “professional” writer as I was in the other. The other article I sounded far away, as if I was writing it from above you somehow, imparting sage advice from the side of the mountain. This time, I sound friendly and personable, frustrated and pained about my writing and myself. I know you’ll all be able to relate to my struggle and my personal issues, so I’m writing it that way. It’s a lot easier to write this time because it’s my voice and not the voice I think you would listen to.

Listen to your muse.

I’ve known the other article wasn’t working since I first began actively writing it. I complained about writing it. I complained that I couldn’t think of anything to say. I complained that I was running out of time. I complained in my blog and to friends. One fine friend even told me to write an article about procrastination since my original topic wasn’t working. I didn’t listen to her, or to myself. I simply kept putting off writing at all. Once I did listen, I found I had a complete article.

Once this article is edited and put up, I’m going to volunteer for another for next year. I’m going to think long and hard about a topic. I’m going to start early and plan for distractions. I’m going to assign a date to sit down and write a month before the deadline. I’m going to start a draft and finish that draft in one sitting. I’m going to listen to my voice and to my muse.

I’m going to meet my deadline.

Final Poll Results

Emergency! 21 Tips for Writing an Article Fast

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Oh, no! The scheduled article has fallen through.

Despite the best-laid plans, it occasionally happens. Someone forgets a deadline, or gets sick, or the planned article, for whatever reason, just doesn’t work out.

Now it’s up to you to fill the space. You need to come up with a replacement article fast. What do you do?

Background Image: Jason Verwey/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Use What You Have On Hand

  1. Pull out that back-up article you keep on hand for just these situations, blow off the dust, and polish it up. What? You don’t have a pre-written back-up article? Doh. Go to number 2.
  2. Finish off a partially written article. Remember those two or three paragraphs you jotted down in a fit of inspiration a few months ago? The ones you’ve been meaning to get back to? Now’s the time.
  3. Start with an idea from your idea file or folder. If you aren’t already keeping an idea file or list of topics for future use, start one now! Just as Martha Stewart would tell you to always keep your pantry stocked for when you’re snowed in or guests drop in unexpectedly, a writer should always keep his/her idea file stocked for writing emergencies.
  4. Expand or continue a previous article. For example, my article “12 More Quick Fixes That’ll Make You Look Even Smarter” was a continuation of my earlier article “10 Quick Fixes That’ll Make You Look Really Smart.” An easy trick: if you’re writing an article and find that you have too much information for the allotted space or that some stuff just doesn’t seem to fit, keep the “extra” information and use it to start a second article.
  5. Re-purpose an existing article (your own or someone else’s). For example, an article about accepting constructive criticism gracefully could be reworked into a “how to critique” article.

I know what you’re thinking. That’s all well and good, but what if…

“I Have Nuthin’!”

  1. Choose a hook/theme. This will help delimit the parameters of your article and help you outline it. For example, if you chose “a rainbow” as your theme, you’d know that your article would have six main points, each based on a color.
  2. Make a quick trip to 7-Eleven, er, Google. If you have even a smidgen of an idea, google it and see what pops up. You might not find anything directly on point, but you never know what will trigger a creative burst.
  3. If you must start from scratch, take five or ten minutes and brainstorm. Write down everything thing you can think of, no matter how silly. Then return to number 7.
  4. If you’re still stuck, procrastinate. No, seriously. Take a short break and let your mind wander while you do something else—preferably an activity that’s more physical than mental. Sometimes that’s when the best ideas surface.
  5. Whatever you do, choose something that requires little to no research. Pick a topic that you’re familiar enough with that once you’ve decided on it, you can sit down and write the article straight through without having to take a lot of breaks to look information up.

So, now you know what you want to write about, but—ouch—you only have a day (or hour) to get it done. This is when the task seems most impossible and the “if onlys” set in. If only I’d known I had to do this a month ago! If only I’d written this article on spec! Well, you didn’t, so no use if onlying it. Instead…

Make the Task Less Daunting

  1. Split the article up into sections and work on it a section at a time. Think back to the old high school essay format: introduction, three-paragraph body, conclusion. It’s a little pedantic, but it’s a good place to start. An introductory and/or closing paragraph or two are never out of place and the body can be adjusted to suit. For example…
  2. Use headings and subheadings. Starting by listing just your headings helps you organize your thoughts and ideas quickly. Once you have your outline, you can go back and fill it in.
  3. Use bullet points. Point form is less intimidating than a straight essay format. Rather than having to keep a single argument going over several paragraphs, you can write a little bit about several different points that are loosely tied together.
  4. Pick a number: “Five Ways To…” “Ten Tips For…” Numbers make your task finite and therefore you’re less likely to suffer from “I’m never going to finish” frustration. Examples are my article “Six Ways To Write What You Don’t Know” and Baker’s article “Seven Writer Resolutions.”
  5. Use a question and answer format, even if you’re not interviewing anyone. Structured like an FAQ (frequently asked questions), this format can be very effective. Questions can double as headings. For an example, see Baker’s article “Been There, Zine That.”

This will give you the skeleton of an article. For example:

The Character Spectrum

Intro paragraph 1

Intro paragraph 2

Red: Protagonist (Nancy Drew)

Orange: Protagonist’s BFFs (Bess & George), who exist to assist the protagonist.

Yellow: Protagonist’s Peripherals (Dad, Hannah-the-Housekeeper, Ned et al.), who support the protagonist, but may hinder her detecting with a) their concerns for her safety or b) their insistence that she show up for dinner on time.

Green: Random characters necessary to keep the plot moving forward, including characters who may or may not be assisting the antagonist with his/her evil plan.

Blue: Antagonist’s minions / sidekicks / associates.

Purple: Antagonist (Dastardly Criminal-du-jour)

Closing Paragraph

At this point, you should be feeling considerably more relaxed. The hard part is done. Now it’s just a matter of filling in the blanks.

Flesh It Out

  1. Don’t be afraid to write out of order. Know how you want to conclude? Write the final paragraph first.
  2. Use lots of examples. Examples can help you explain something quickly and they also fill space. One caveat: if you stick with a single book or series throughout as the basis for your examples, make sure it’s something that most readers will recognize.
  3. A judiciously placed quote can be just what an article needs to make it sparkle. Here, for example, quoting Jaywalke, I insert “a witty and heartwarming inspirational quote about writing.”
  4. Keep each section simple and short. Make your point and move on. Now is not the time to drift off on tangents or try to write that epic piece you’ve been contemplating.
  5. If you get stuck on a point, leave it and come back to it later. If you’re completely stuck, step away from the computer. Even a five-minute break can be enough to clear your head.

And then get back to writing. No dawdling now, people are counting on you.

Banish Doubt!

  1. Use the “just write” principle: finish the article first and then edit. Remember, you don’t have time to re-write your first sentence twenty-seven times. What’s needed in this situation is a competent handling of the subject, not your most eloquent phrasing. Once you’ve proofread your draft, forego agonizing over it, and get it off to your editor as soon as possible.Once you’ve finished your article, take a few minutes to start or add to your idea file before you give yourself a pat on the back. Then next time you’re called on to produce an article at the last minute, you’ll be prepared.

Final Poll Results

Slap! Assigned Writing

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

Assigned writing. Do thoughts of ugh, yipes or never again run through your mind?

At some point in our lives, in school and possibly at work, we have all been asked to write about a topic that hasn’t carried much interest for us or was so overwhelming that it seemed like drudge work. Remember all those ‘boring’ reports and essays you had to write in school? Have you ever considered entering a writing contest, like those we sponsor at Toasted Cheese, read the topic and said to yourself, “Yipes, I couldn’t write about questioning authority in 48 hours to save my life.” This is about how to get beyond the notion that assigned writing is work, and discover ways to enjoy and effectively write about anything.

Background Image: Alex|movetheclouds/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

I remember an assignment in junior high, “Write your autobiography.” I’m sure I wrote something extremely boring, beginning with “I was born in Michigan.” My best friend Nancy, however, began hers with, “Slap! I entered the world screaming and haven’t stopped making noise since.” I wish I could tell you the rest of what she wrote but that was over 30 years ago. That opening line, well, who wouldn’t remember that?

Nancy took a fresh, vibrant approach to her assignment. Having fun and successfully writing something assigned is about excavating beyond the rubble of what you think is expected and writing about the unexpected.

Consider a short story contest with the theme natural disaster. You may think of an earthquake, for example, but take that notion beyond an earthquake and write about what might feel like an earthquake. A car rams into a house shaking it, two teenagers are having sex, the girl freaks, “I knew it was a sin” and runs from the house to see her parent’s car smashed into the house. The mother dies. Death = natural. Build the story: tell of how the family disintegrates = disaster, conclusion the rebuilding of the family = how nature recuperates from disaster.

Some editors may not feel that you addressed the subject. BUT, if you write well enough the editor(s) will recognize your innovative approach and consider your submission, and who knows you may even win!

The same holds true for non-fiction writing. If you want to get published, local weekly papers are a great opportunity. Offer to attend the school board and city council meetings not covered by the paper. Yes, they can be boring, but there is always a story there. Dig among the rubble: new textbooks? Don’t just write about that, go behind the scene, ask what was the decision-making process, who was involved, why did they choose a particular publisher. It’s fun; teachers and administrators love to talk, unless they’ve made a bad public decision, and then you have a field to explore. Dig deep, be polite and think creatively.

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, here are a few things to consider.

Remember your readers. Successful writing makes the reader think of life in a broader context. When possible, move from the specific to a universal theme the reader can relate to.

Use the active voice. There are three basic elements to a sentence: subject, verb, object. Example: Mollie, bite, mosquito. Depending on what happened you could write: The mosquito bit Mollie or Mollie bit the mosquito. DO NOT write in the passive voice: the mosquito was bitten by Mollie. Believe me, when I try to bite a pesky mosquito as I enjoy the setting sun it is very active. Engage your readers in the present.

Be descriptive and lively as you tell your story. You’ve read a million times: show, don’t tell. This is true and can’t be repeated enough. Use the active voice and tell your reader, “As she enjoyed the quiet sunset, the buzzing of a mosquito disturbed Mollie. She waited, moving her jaw in anticipation. When the menacing pest landed on her arm she bent forward in a slow, practiced manner. Chomp, she bit the pest.”

Gag. Just so you know I slap. But you get the picture don’t you?

Final Poll Results