The only new year’s resolution writers should make

Jarrett and I had the most fantastic staycation between Christmas and the new year. It felt so, so good to relax and get a few long-standing projects done around the house. The week was full of crazy exciting things like gift-wrapping and Costco shopping and house cleaning. We’re a wild bunch here.

There was also, of course, a lot of reading. I’m reading about four books at the same time right now, and while I’m not quite sure how I get myself into this love rectangle, it’s been magical.

Once again, one of my new year’s resolutions this year is to read more. To read well. To read where my interests lead me and explore new kinds of relationships with new kinds of books and new ways of thinking.

I will always believe that reading well is the single most important commitment any writer, creative, or curious person can make.

new years resolution for writers to get published

Here’s why:

When I started out in publishing I had a sort of weird job: I was the editorial assistant for both a nonfiction imprint and a genre romance imprint. It was incredible—one minute I’d be writing a tipsheet for a bestselling author’s next cookbook and the next I’d be editing racy copy for a romance novel. My desk was equal parts “Lose 20 pounds in 20 days!” and “Has the billionaire cowboy finally met his match”? It was fun.

Working on series romance was a huge stroke of luck since it meant I got to edit manuscripts and build my own author list right away. I will never forget the day a Senior Editor handed me a manuscript and asked if I wanted to take a crack at editing a book. I ran back to my desk, grabbed a red pen, and started reading—I had officially made it! I was editing A BOOK. A real book. People were going to read this book I was editing. I would edit it until it was the best book that had ever existed. My comments would be profound yet kind. My edits would be impeccable.

Two paragraphs into the manuscript, I hated my life. The book was awful. It was boring, clunky, empty words, one after the other after the other. Words plodding along for two hundred tiresome pages. I began to fantasize about quitting. It seemed the only humane thing to do, for the author and for myself. I would write a brilliantly worded resignation letter, and it would show them my true genius and talent. Genius and talent that shouldn’t be wasted on this drivel.

Instead, I gave myself a mental slapping around, pointed out to myself that there isn’t a speck of genius or talent to be found on me, and kept reading. I edited one such manuscript every month for the next nearly 3 years, and I learned something very important:

The mere act of writing will never make you a better writer.

Not ever.

You can pound away at the keyboard for the next infinity years and never have output that’s any good.

Because to output good writing you need to input good writing. It’s that simple.

If you don’t read outside of the echo chamber of your genre or category, it won’t matter how disciplined you are about sticking to a write-every-day resolution. You won’t one day emit good writing just because you’ve hit some imaginary threshold of word count or books completed. Good is honed, and to hone a precision edge you need to scuff up against something that’s stronger than you.

You need to read good writing.

That’s the first thing I tell every aspiring writer who asks me for advice on getting published. And it’s the first thing every writer—no matter where they are in their career—should put at the top of their resolution list. It’s non-negotiable.

Read The New Yorker; read books on the New York Times bestseller list; read critically acclaimed books in your genre; read The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times; read Pulitzer winners and the best books of the year. Just read good writing.

And don’t ever read bad writing.

The process of reading is the process of listening, and developing an ear for fluid prose is how you learn to write fluid prose. Every input you give your brain adds another data point for the rhythms and sounds of written language. Essentially, what you put in is what you get out.

So don’t put bad writing into your brain. Just like eating low-quality food is bad for your health, consuming low-quality writing is bad for your writer’s ear. The clichés, the lazy phrasing, the pompous reaching, the empty fluff will vibrate in your writer’s ear just as much as a perfectly turned sentence. Curate your inputs, and your mind will become attuned to the rhythms of good writing.

Once the sound of good writing is lodged inside you, then you can tackle all the other resolutions that have to come next: sticking to a writing schedule; connecting with readers; networking with other writers; learning how to market your work.

But start with reading. Each and every year.

This post was originally published one year ago, on January 5, 2016.


What I’m Reading

What Writers Know About Paying Attention (Stephanie Smith): I recently stumbled across the Slant Letter newsletter from Stephanie Smith, an editor at Zondervan, and I loved what she had to say this week about reading well: “Every novel, every narrative, every thesis or thinkpiece, all of these churn together like coffee grounds and kitchen scraps in the same compost pile. And slowly, with patient turning and over time, a nutrient-rich soil is created. If your sources are good, your soil will be good, and any seeds that are planted in it will absorb their richness and health. The reverse is also true: if your sources are lacking or anemic, chances are you won’t germinate that brilliant idea you were hoping to hatch.”

The 24 Best Longform Food Stories of 2016 (Eater): Well, look-ee here. Some great writing to read!

The Sixteen Most-Read New Yorker Stories of 2016 (The New Yorker): And some more.

The Most Popular Food News of 2016 (The New York Times): One last serving of good reads. (That Per Se review really was killer.)

A Literary Agent’s Guide to Publishing Terms Authors Should Know (Mark Gottlieb for The Write Life): If you’ve ever wondered what “D&A” means, this is the year to get your publishing jargon down pat.


What We’re Eating

We had good intentions. Good resolutions. Good plans. In fact, my health resolution this year was to cook vegetables in bulk and cram myself right full of them. But then we got home late from the cabin we rented for New Year’s, and our Peapod order was delayed, and we had nothing fresh in the fridge. Here is a true accounting of what happened from there:

Monday: Leftovers

Tuesday: Leftovers

Wednesday: Takeout, wine, friends at our house

Thursday: Finally back on track! A shrimp greek salad. Dinner of the resolution gods.

Friday: White Chicken Chili. I became obsessed with white chicken chili after having a dynamite bowl of it last week at a volunteer event. Luckily, my authors have a few knockout recipes: I’m trying Robyn’s white chicken chili recipe this week and Jenn’s recipe after that. 2017: the year of bathing in white chicken chili.

Cheers!

Get one tip for upgrading your literary life sent to your inbox each week!

4 Common Mistakes Bloggers Make That Hurt Traffic and Engagement

How to build a nonfiction platform

I spend a lot of time looking at blogs and websites. Maybe too much time. Sometimes I feel like if I have to see one more watercolor Facebook icon or read one more About Me page, I will just flop over, dead from too much Interneting.

But 95% of the time, I just love it. It’s fascinating to see the front end of a blog or website and then talk to its owner and learn more about their back end stats and strategies. I guess it’s sort of like seeing how the blog sausage is made. (“Blog sausage” sounds wrong. In a hilarious way. I will now have to dedicate my remaining years to proliferating this phrase.)

ANYWAY. It’s become so incredibly important to have a strong online platform before you launch a book that it’s impossible to overlook the power of a well-done website or blog. Yet if there’s one thing I’ve seen from speaking to hundreds of bloggers, it’s that very few of them know what the heck anyone else is doing. Sure, there are plenty of online courses you can take that could help you build traffic, but there’s nothing like seeing how that traffic converts into real business (as in product sales) to show you how important certain overlooked areas are.

There are 4 areas that I think are especially overlooked, and where I think many people are stifling their engagement, throttling their traffic, and overall slowing down the growth of their businesses. Here are the mistakes I see most often:

Read More

Read, Eat, Drink: William Zinsser on Nonfiction and a Wild Feast

Literary Agent Advice

Read:

How to Secure a Traditional Book Deal by Self-Publishing (Jane Friedman at Writer Unboxed): “It’s not any easier to interest an agent or publisher when you’re self-published, and since new authors are more likely to put out a low-quality effort (they rush, they don’t sufficiently invest, they don’t know their audience), chances are even lower their book will get picked up.” As Jane puts it, “we have a serious epidemic of impatience.” The truth is that publishing a book is easy, but finding readers for a book is hard. More here on how to decide if self-publishing is right for you.

What’s Your Book Marketing Plan? 6 Crucial Steps to Include (Maggie Langrick on The Write Life): “I now counsel all of our authors to build a relationship directly with their readers.” The wonderful thing about this Internet age is that no one can keep you from your readers but you. That’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s also a lot of opportunity.

The Biggest Business Mistake I Ever Made (Joel Friedlander, The Book Designer): “My big mistake was ignoring my email list. I just didn’t understand why it was crucially important until a friend showed me the light.” From my data, there are tons of bloggers and aspiring authors who are making this same mistake. In fact, of the last 10 calls I had with aspiring authors over the past few weeks, exactly ONE understood the importance of building an email list. Guess which one I offered to represent.

The Art of Science Communication: William Zinsser on How to Write Well About Science (Maria Popova, Brain Pickings): The day William Zinsser passed away, I picked up my old yellowed copy of On Writing Well, and it pulled me back to my journalism days in college. I didn’t realize it then, but Zinsser, McPhee, Mitchell, and the whole crowd from my Literary Journalism class are the ones who dragged me, happily, into making a career in nonfiction. I remember picking up The New Yorker sometime in high school, spotting an article about UPS, and being so riveted I couldn’t stop reading. Good nonfiction makes even the most dense and mundane subject fascinating. As Zinsser says: “Writing is not a special language owned by the English teacher. Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all. Science, demystified, is just another nonfiction subject. Writing, demystified, is just another way for scientists to transmit what they know.”

Eat & Drink:

Before I jump into this week’s Eat & Drink, an important question: Does your diet consist almost entirely of chicken tenders, mac and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, and other delicacies from the kids’ menu? If so, please avert your eyes. Things are going to get what you would consider “gross.”

Read More

How to Measure Engagement and Why It Matters for Your Platform

How to measure engagement

A few weeks ago I was asked about how to measure engagement, and I gave a quick answer in a comment thread. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I spend a lot of time talking about how crucial engagement is, and not enough time talking about how to measure it.

When I was an editor at a New York publisher, I would have anywhere from 7-15 meetings a week. Mostly that was because I had to be at meetings for two different teams, but it still meant anywhere from 1-2 full work days a week spent sitting around a conference room with a group of people.

Some of the meetings were awesome and energizing and full of smart people brainstorming about our books. But some of them were painful. If anyone has ever been in a production meeting where you’re reviewing deadlines title-by-title, you’re probably as accomplished of a doodler as I am. I can now draw quite a menagerie of miniature animals. This is in no way a life skill.

But the point is that it was the content of the meeting that determined whether I was an active or inactive participant. If we were talking about one of my books, or about marketing strategies, or about titles, I was usually giving my full attention and input to the meeting. If we were talking about production dates that had nothing to do with me, it was giraffe-drawing time.

If you had put a two-way mirror in that conference room and placed a randomly selected group of people on the other side, they could have easily told you which people in the meeting were engaged, simply by looking at who was interacting with the meeting content—by offering opinions, asking questions, or expressing emotion.

The meeting of the minds that is your blog/vlog/website is no different. Some people are just popping their head into the room and leaving, some people are present but not engaged, and some people are all in. The people who are all in will be interacting with your content in one way or another. So measuring engagement is really about measuring action.

How, exactly, to measure engagement on different platforms:

Read More