As a part of our required readings for the social media writing class at Quinnipiac, we were required to purchase and read On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. This was a terrific book.
On Writing Well covers a multitude of issues that writers can face. Zinsser gives writers the freedom to occasionally break some rules, or at least to bend them. Moreover, he gives reasons why one type of construction might work better than another.
For Zinsser, the start and the end pack heavy punches. On Page 54, he writes,
“The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he’s hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the ‘lead’.”
Not only is this good advice for fiction writing, it’s excellent for report writing and for writing for the web. How many times have we had to slog through a ton of prose before getting to the good stuff? How many times have we tried to hang in there when we’d rather be doing anything but tackling an opaque garbage can full of prose?
Active Versus Passive Tense
Many writers are told to prefer active to passive tense when writing. Zinsser explains why, on Page 67,
“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style – in clarity and vigor – is the difference between life and death for a writer.”
A little over the top, maybe, but it does get the point across.
Don’t dance around your subject. Be bold. Be clear. Be terse.
True influence requires two things: audience and advocacy. Advocacy is driven by the depth of conviction, and influencers typically are less committed to the product or company than are actual customer advocates.
In the world of aspiring authors, advocacy isn’t limited to just influencers. Nearly everyone is an advocate, but it’s the influencers who have the audience.
Amateur authors love to write and would love to be published (and quit their day jobs), but many are terrified of being seen as wannabes. In the NaNoWriMo community in particular (NaNoWriMo is an annual challenge to write a novel of at least 50,000 words during November), there seems to be a fear that the product created at the end of the month is somehow ‘not good enough’.
For these aspiring authors, the ability to interact directly with their literary heroes is a means of seeking and obtaining a degree of validation.
Within NaNoWriMo, the organization leverages its network of authors (not necessarily ones who have ever participated in the annual event) to write Pep Talks. Neil Gaiman, in 2007, wrote –
You write. That’s the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die. Writing may or may not be your salvation; it might or might not be your destiny. But that does not matter. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
For aspiring authors ready to throw in the towel, Gaiman’s words ring true. All NaNoWriMo is selling are buttons and a few other products sporting their logo. Plus they are hoping participants will contribute to the site.
Inspiration isn’t easy to bottle, but Gaiman’s words (and the words of other authors such as Jim Butcher) are helpful. The aspiring author realizes he or she is far from alone. Even the people who really did quit their day jobs struggle at times.
#MSWL is a Twitter hashtag meaning ‘Manuscript Wish List’. Instead of waiting for a slush pile’s worth of unsolicited manuscripts, agents and publishing houses reach out directly to the writing community and make their desires known. While #MSWL is more active in February, the most recent tweet (as of the creation of this blog post) is from freelance editor Libby Murphy –
REALLY want a romantic comedy featuring hockey players! Bonus points for an enemies to lovers conflict.#MSWL
Murphy’s tweet provides writers with exactly what they need. If they’ve got a manuscript tucked away with Bobby Orr as the protagonist, then the writer’s next step is obvious.
Is everyone who uses #MSWL an influencer? No. But the clear request is a win-win. It wastes time and goodwill if an aspiring author doesn’t have a hockey story but queries Ms. Murphy anyway, or presents their Alexander Ovechkin-inspired romantic comedy to another. #MSWL has been so successful that it has spawned WordPress and Tumblr blogs. Most of the buzz behind #MSWL comes from agent Jessica Sinsheimer.
Twitter, though, is the place to be for literary agents, and not just when #MSWL is most active. Even Sinsheimer, who invented #MSWL, admits she uses the hashtag even when there’s no event going on. It’s that convenient.
How Organizations Can Best Use Influencer Networks
For NaNoWriMo, tapping their influencer network is a way to shore up fragile aspiring authors’ egos and, maybe, get them to purchase merchandise or donate or both. Further, the use of pep talks – on-point evergreen content – means influencer names are associated with NaNoWriMo and remain so in perpetuity.
For looser confederations of publishers and literary agents, using #MSWL gets them connected to online influencers in a way that they weren’t before. It doesn’t hurt that the hashtag is practical, too, and cuts out wasted time as aspiring authors are directed to query agents and publishers interested in their nascent masterpieces.
For the Spring Semester of 2015, I decided to double my course load and try to graduate a bit more rapidly. This entailed taking two classes. Little was I to know, when I signed up for these courses, that I would also get a job and my book, Untrustworthy, would be published. Hence my workload began to feel a bit out of control. Continue reading “Writing, Ethics, and Quinnipiac”→