Obedience Training for your Pet Words
by Noelle Sterne
You meticulously study the publication’s guidelines. You follow them precisely. You draft and redraft your submission. But . . . the rejections pour in relentlessly. You moan, scream, swear, and fling around the house, ready to throw in the sponge and throw out your keyboard.
If you identify with this scenario, maybe your approach to your writing needs an adjustment.
To find out, take this little test:
Do you too often feel blocked and self-conscious?
2. Like you’ve lost your flow and spontaneity?
3. Think only of impressing the editor of the Big Publication you want to get into?
4. Concentrate on displaying your great wit and astounding insights?
If your response is “Yes” to any or all of these questions, you may be writing to and for the wrong person.
Yes, the editor accepts, approves, pays, and publishes, but the editor, after all, is a surrogate audience. The editor’s job is to be plugged into the publication’s audience, and the more she/he is sensitive to the readers, the more lasting is the publication’s success.
So I have one piece of advice: Forget the editor!
Who Are You Writing For?
I learned this lesson with difficulty and several ego punctures. Finally, the Big Mag I’d been craving to get into for years accepted a piece and published it. Then, awesome marvel, the editor called and gave me another assignment for the following issue. We had a great conversation, way beyond writing, comparing favorite munchies and other important life issues. I assured him I could easily meet the tight deadline, privately positive I could whip out a brilliant piece.
But once I started, after the first zingy paragraph, everything stopped. Gagged flow, flat writing, paltry new ideas. What was happening? I felt the edge of panic. Why was this piece so different from the first successful one?
I got up from my desk. Walking outside to the nearby park, I breathed deeply and bathed my eyes in the forest greenery. I needed an answer. After taking in the trees, I heard the words: “Be the reader.”
How to Write for Your Reader
As I thought about this command, I imagined myself as the reader. As my eyes lit on the low plants, other words came in the form of questions:
Why am I reading this?
What can I learn?
How will it help me?
What about it will entertain, uplift, or inspire me?
You too probably have such questions subconsciously in mind when you pick up anything you want to read. Try these questions more consciously on a work by another author. Your answers will become evident – whatever the genre. They’ll remind or teach you why your reader wants to read.
Asking myself the questions during my walk, I started responding for that piece I was so ferociously blocked on. The answers came pouring through.
I stopped, dug into my pocket for my pad and pen, jotted feverishly, and then almost ran back home and to my desk. I attacked the article again, completed it on time, and sent it in. The editor returned it with only minor edits before publication.
I learned that when we approach our piece as if we are the reader, we stop trying to dazzle the editor. We know who we are writing for: the reader.
Paradox: The Reader Is You
At the same time, the more we write honestly and delve into our own depths, the more we will reach readers. The more honest we are about ourselves and subjects, the more we connect with readers, as if we are writing for them. James Scott Bell in The Art of War for Writers says, “I like to see a writer’s heart on the page. Heart = passion + purpose” (p. 62). In other words, this is writing what we feel.
When Elizabeth Gilbert was interviewed about her great success with Eat, Pray, Love, her interviewer observed she was “instantly connected to millions of women who felt that a part of your story was their story too.” She replied, “It’s very joyful for me to see that the liberation I gave myself made them feel more free” (Karen Bouris, “The Stubborn Gladness of Elizabeth Gilbert,” Spirituality & Health, March-April 2013). Gilbert was writing for herself – giving herself that needed and craved “liberation” – and other women identified and drew courage from her admissions and actions.
I too felt joyful – and surprised and grateful – at readers’ identification when they commented on my book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go after Your Dreams. One reader wrote, “As if speaking directly to me, the author began to guide me gently out of that stuckness.” Another said, “The very issues I've been grappling with are right there in this book. It was like a blueprint that all but had my name on it.” ·
Now, who was I writing about? You guessed it – me. Whose problems was I puzzling out? Mine. Whose solutions was I aiming for? My own. And yet, my words resounded with readers who then found the very help and meanings they needed.
Your Rewards from Becoming the Reader
Learning how readers are helped by our words is one of the many rewards of becoming the reader in our writing. I’ve also discovered other gifts that teach and guide us in perspectives and craft:
You become less self-centered.
You concentrate instead on the reader’s needs.
In turn, the work’s focus becomes clearer.
Your writing flows with greater direction and purpose.
You become more honest in your writing.
You admit, maybe paradoxically, that you are writing for yourself.
You connect with more readers.
Now, with these lessons on mind, whenever I feel I’m trying too hard to be smart, witty, cleverer than my writing colleagues, or writing to outdo a previous piece, I go out to the park and walk, breathe, and talk to myself: “Remember who you’re writing for.” Then I remind myself, silently and sometimes aloud, “I’m writing for the reader. I’m writing for myself.” And finally I shout, not caring who hears, “Forget the editor!”
Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne·publishes widely in print and online. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle assists doctoral candidates wrestling with their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her new handbook addresses students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). In Noelle’s first book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go·After Your Dreams·(Unity Books, 2011), she helps·readers·release regrets, re-label their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at·www.trustyourlifenow.com.