Recently I remembered a pivotal moment that occurred at a small writer’s gathering I attended in my early, fledgling writing career. I was a few chapters into my first book entitled HOMELIFE: The Key to Your Child’s Success in School. I didn’t have an agent or any connections in the publishing industry, nor even a writer friend to help me edit. So when I heard about a writer’s retreat, I signed up and was excited to attend.
There I met a quiet young woman with straight brown hair and brown glasses who looked very serious. When I went to her breakout session, she sounded like she knew what she was talking about—and she worked for a publisher! So after her session on editing, I introduced myself and asked if she would be willing to read my first chapter and give me some feedback.
“Any feedback, either negative or positive, would be helpful. I feel like I’m writing in a. vacuum,” I said.
Fortunately, this was a small enough gathering that she could sit down over a break and read my first 10 pages. I went into the kitchen and got her a cup of tea and then waited in another part of the room until she was finished.
After a while, she called me over to the table and I sat down across from her.
“Cheri, you have some very good ideas for parents,” she told me. “But here is what I advise you to do with every page and chapter you write: As you work in your office, picture a mom right across from you having coffee. And then share your ideas with her in a conversational way, not like the formal written English style you used when writing your graduate thesis. Not like you’re talking down to her since you know all about the subject, but horizontally in a warm, familiar tone.”
“You mean my style is pretty stiff?” I asked her. (Ha. Such an understatement, I learned!)
“It certainly is. And unless you can learn to talk to your reader like she’s a friend you’re meeting at a coffee shop, I think you’re going to lose her on page one. And any editor who reads your manuscript as well.”
Since she was an editor, I asked if she had any other tips for how to achieve this conversational style of writing.
“Well, first, write the way you talk. Avoid writing sentences or paragraphs that are too long. Use contractions whenever you can. Know who you’re writing for, what audience you’re hoping to speak to, and what her situation is. If that’s a mother, does she have five little children around her and she only has time to read a short paragraph at a time? Or if it’s a working mom who comes home exhausted, will she be able to engage in your content?
In either case, they’d appreciate seeing your tips on helping kids learn in bullet points she can apply right away. That will affect your style and you’ll discover your voice. Always read your chapter aloud when you finish it to see how it flows.
And most of all, become more of a storyteller!”
As I flew back home and started revising chapters and writing new ones, I kept in mind what she told me. It didn’t happen overnight; it was a learning process. I attended a semester-long storytelling course on Saturdays at a nearby college (one of the best classes I ever took) and included more stories in my book. I even found it helpful to read a chapter to my husband or a mom next door.
What I learned in two short days at a writer’s gathering proved to be one of the most valuable things I ever did—and learning to write in a warm, conversational style became a hallmark of my future books. You never know who you’re going to meet or a key tool you’ll discover for your writing arsenal.
See you at the next WWSW retreat!