Writing is not easy.

As a developmental editor I have had the pleasure of working with fine artists, storytellers, public speakers, radio journalists, scientists, and college professors on book projects.For many, their authority as an author is based on skills and talents other than writing.

Here are some tips I gathered from other professionals that may help others stand on their authority based on expertise and/or experience:

  • Fine artists. The media may be different, but writers and fine artists use composition to organize the elements in a work. Writing, like art, begins with point-of-view as the organizing principal for conventional compositions. The subject comes into focus and the artist must lead the audience’s eyes around all elements before leaving the work. Writing a book manuscript is a hefty composition and requires organization to guide the reader. Sketch your composition, create the outline, and consider what you want the audience to know and in what order.
  • Storytellers. The oral performance of an original story can be a magical experience. But the transcription of an oral performance rarely translates directly to the page for the reader’s eye. Storytellers write for the ear. They work on the craft by listening to their own voice and perfect it for the ears of an audience.  To turn those stories into the printed version, there is a translation needed for the deaf eyes of readers. The hand gestures, the tone or volume of vocal delivery, and the intensity of a live performance are lost on a printed page.  The storyteller must add written description that brings the narration to life for publication. Attribution goes to the end when writing for the eye: Pa stormed into the kitchen and yelled, “Where’s my skillet?” This is an example written for the ear.“’Where’s my skillet?” yelled Pa who stormed into the kitchen. This is now written for the eye. Notice the attribution comes after what has been uttered aloud by the speaker. Dialogue style for the printed page differs significantly.
  • Public speakers can captivate an audience with the cadence of their voice, poetic eloquence, and the charisma of the spoken word. Politicians, preachers, community organizers, and business leaders commonly use second-person narration. Change the POV. Speakers often directly address the audience with the pronoun “you.” Extremely effective in the delivery of a speech to a live audience because it is personally engaging, when used it writing it may have a different effect than intended. When the narrator of a book speaks to the audience in second-person point-of-view (POV), the singular and plural forms are the same and it can come off as commanding, demanding, even dictatorial. “You people” is implied in the narrator’s voice as a superior authority. Third-person point-of-view further distances a reader from an invisible omniscient narrator. Public speakers are most likely to find the use of first-person narration works best. There is no law against using the pronoun I in good writing. Really. Your grammar school teacher just spooked you in composition class and you can get over it. You plan to vote in 2014. [second-person POV] Citizens plan to vote in 2014. [third-person POV] I plan to vote in 2014. [first-person POV]
  • Radio journalists write for the ear. But the differences between writing for the ear and the eye are so much more than style of attribution. In the same way that pictures tell stories without words, sounds do so, too. Writers can become more conscious of the soundscapes in their narratives and add more dialogue to develop characters, motivations, conflicts, and move plot forward. Scripts for radio broadcasts, however, are written in a style suitable for production, not publication.  Radio journalists write in the present tense and if they have to refer to previous events, they typically use simple past. This makes it easy for a listener to follow along and provides a sense of “you are there” live with the reporter on the scene. The translation of work written for the ear to the eye for print publication requires attention to verb tenses. Flagging verb tense abuse. Writing for the ear means a lot of verbs in the present tense form that use a helping verb and an –ing ending. She is standing here. Writing present tense for the eye of a reader means a revision to the simple present tense: She stands here.  We are marching to Victoria sounds right, but for print it would be rewritten: We march to Victoria. For writing, the reader expects present tense to be used only when the narrator is speaking in the fictional sense of the present (at that particular point of the chronology, not a flashback of the past or foreshadow of future events). Readers can understand more complicated verb tenses and need them as time references to the narrative present.
  • Scientists often write without much regard for readers who are not their peers and equals in a very narrow field of specialty or expertise. The use of jargon and terminology obfuscates meaning to a reader. Eyelids glaze over acronyms. Translating complex concepts, theories, measurements, and results into comprehensible everyday English for a book reader may involve several stages of revising. Expository writing need not be dull or boring. Working with narration is especially useful to establish sequence or put data into some kind of logical order. As scientists, use these narrative devices to help the readers make sense of your larger points: anecdotes, biography, autobiography/personal experience, vignettes from real life, specific or concrete examples from everyday life.  One of the best contemporary science writers today is Mary Roach and her current bestseller, Gulp, is a great example of how to use these narrative techniques to make reading science fun. Who Cares and So What? These two questions are the ones that matter most to a reader and every author needs to keep them foremost in mind while writing a book.
  • College Professors, like many scientists, write to a niche academic audience. They avoid the use of first person POV unnecessarily. One finds that strange to have the author refer to one’s self in the third person. Awkward. Obfuscating language and academic buzzwords turn off readers. Really. Sentences tend to be constructed in passive voice and the reader gets lost in who did what to whom.  Lectures are the worst. No one wants to read class lecture notes, no matter what your student class evaluations say. Rewriting such content for an audience means finding a voice that isn’t lecturing in tone and meant to be read by the eyes of an intelligent and interested reader. Change the Prescriptive to Descriptive in the Narrator’s Voice. Do less telling and more showing.

How does your professional background, skill sets, and creative talents affect your ability to write a manuscript and revise it for readers’ eyes so that it is ready to publish as a book? Can you turn your writing weaknesses into strengths by drawing from your core knowledge?

6 thoughts on “When Writing Isn’t the Source of Your Authority as an Author

  1. Jill,
    You couldn’t have been more on target with what I have been trying to pinpoint in my own writing. The examples you give help illustrate your explanations so well. It is a small difference in POV that makes a huge difference for the reader.

    • Thanks Elaine for sharing this with your circle and it does seem to have pulled a popular response. There are many authors of non-fiction and memoir who did not pursue careers as writers and I hope this post resonates with writers who seek to become published authors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.