Q&A: Do you need a blog?

I just returned from teaching at the Speak Up Conference in Grand Rapids. It was a wonderful event, and I hope to be back next year. This conference started as one for speakers, but because speakers often need to write and writers often need to speak, they’ve added a writing track to the conference. I was invited to teach Editing Nonfiction, and I think it went very well. I had some clever and engaged folks there who asked plenty of insightful questions. I’ll continue my series of blog posts based on that class next time.

question answer

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Today, I wanted to address a question I was asked by one of the writers who came to see me during a one-on-one appointment, because I hear this one a lot.

Q: Do I need to have both a website and a blog?

A: No.

That sounds like a simple answer, but there’s more to it than that.

The first thing to understand is that a blog is just a type of website. In other words, the set “blogs” is a subset of the set “websites.”

Agents, editors, and social media experts often say writers must blog. But blogging doesn’t suit everyone. If you’re not going to be able to keep it up on a fairly regular basis, don’t bother.

I will say that if you are a writer trying to sell a book, even if you are only at the stage of pitching your book to editors and agents, you must have a website. When editors and agents Google your name, they should be able to find you online. But that website doesn’t have to be a blog.

Three Models

There are three main ways to set up a website.

  1. Just a blog

When you are just starting out, you can get a blog at Blogger or WordPress.com and have only a blog, if you can commit to posting on a regular basis. This is a good option to get you started. Fantasy novelist John Otte began this way at his Least Read Blog on the Web. You’ll notice that it hasn’t been updated in over a year. That’s because now that Otte is a multipublished author, he’s upgraded to a website with a blog (see No. 3 below).

  1. Website with no blog

Many business websites use this model, including the conference linked above. Since authors are also businesspeople, this can work for you, too. CJ Lyons bucks the “you must blog” advice, and yet gets best-seller results. Lyons produces a newsletter that goes out to her subscribers on a regular basis. So she’s doing a newsletter instead of a blog. Notice that she has newsletter sign-up links at the top, middle and bottom of her home page.

  1. Website with a blog

That’s what you see right here, as well as at John Otte’s new site. My blog posts appear on the home page, and then the sidebar menu gives you links to the other pages of my site. On Otte’s site, his home page has photos and links and a newsletter sign-up, similar to Lyons’s site, with the addition that Otte’s top-line menu includes a link to his blog page.

And a Fourth

You can use a site at Blogger or WordPress to host a website with no blog, but then you need to change the site setup so it looks like a website with no blog instead of a neglected blog. Jane Friedman describes that procedure on her site, which is also a website with a blog.

Identify Your Nonfiction Genre

Before we can start editing our nonfiction, we need to know what kind of nonfiction we’re dealing with so we can meet the expectations of the genre.

In fiction editing, we have to keep in mind, for example, the different needs of contemporary women’s fiction compared to futuristic science fiction.

In the same way, the different varieties of nonfiction are handled differently depending on their genre or form. Ideally, you will have identified what form you’re using before you start writing. But in my experience, many new writers just start writing, and they don’t think about what form they’re using until they’re done. Which is fine.

Search book genre

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Part of what we do in the initial read-through is identify what form the author is using or intended to use. The different types of nonfiction can be viewed as a spectrum, from forms which use little storytelling to ones which are entirely storytelling:

Academic or Technical Writing

Includes textbooks, computer manuals, and religious books for scholarly readers

Books aimed primarily at scholarly or technical readers are usually focused on straight information. They may use true or invented anecdotes to make specific points, but for the most part they are plain collections of facts. They can be written in either a formal or a conversational style and do not attempt literary-quality prose. These books can have complex vocabularies and will often be as long as they need to be.

Prescriptive Nonfiction

Includes self-help, how-to books, and religious books for general readers

Books are considered prescriptive when they tell you what to do or how to it. These are often based on the author’s direct experience rather than on research. For example, Elizabeth Zimmerman’s books about knitting are based on her actual experiences with needles and yarn. These books are usually aimed at a general audience and are therefore best written in an informal or conversational tone. The vocabulary will be kept to about a high-school reading level. Depending on the publisher, the length may be constrained to around 60,000-80,000 words.

Expository Nonfiction

Includes investigative journalism and other books based on author research

This category has two subsets. Some writers directly do academic research or investigative journalism and then report their findings. All the President’s Men is this type. Other writers do secondary research, by reading books and academic journal articles by a variety of scientists or other experts, and then synthesize new information from that. This often entails studying multiple fields to see how they influence one another. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us is an example of the latter type. The writing style of either may range from formal to casual depending on the author’s voice. Storytelling is mostly limited to anecdotes or a plain recitation of historical facts, as in John Adams. The vocabulary requirements and length constraints can vary widely depending on the audience.

Narrative Nonfiction

Uses novel-writing techniques to tell stories of true events

Memoirs like Angela’s Ashes are a subset of narrative nonfiction. In this category, the events described are factual, but fiction techniques are used to increase the story’s intensity. The aim is less to deliver facts than it is to create a powerful emotional experience, as one would do in a novel. Writers in this genre have been known to bend facts to their purposes, sometimes with disastrous results, as in the case of the book A Million Little Pieces, which though originally presented by the author as memoir turned out to be mostly fiction. The writing style of narrative nonfiction can range from journalistic to casual, but in memoir, the writing style should be personal. This genre also allows for and even encourages very literary styles. As with expository writing, vocabulary and length will depend on audience and story.

Parables

Completely made up stories with a lesson included

A parable is a fictional story that is used to deliver factual truths. Even though the story of the mice in Who Moved My Cheese? is entirely made up, the book is shelved in the nonfiction section because it is primarily informational, and the story is the vehicle for delivering that information. Books like this are made up completely of storytelling, but a simple narrative summary format predominates. Parables are not fully dramatized as novels and narrative nonfiction are. The writing style is usually conversational but can also take on an old-fashioned, fairy-tale style. Parables are short, usually 50,000 words (200 pages) or less. They are written with simpler vocabularies to reach a wider audience—about a ninth-grade reading level.

Once you know what kind of nonfiction you’ve written, you can look at other books in the same genre and get a feel for its conventions.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Yes, I totally loaded this post up with Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on a link and buy something, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I’ve only linked to books I believe will be of value to you, which is why I didn’t link to the memoir that isn’t. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

How to Edit Your Nonfiction Book

I spent nearly a year discussing the Elements of Fiction, with 92 posts altogether on the topic. Those of you who are writing nonfiction may have wondered when I was going to get to you.

As it happens, I’m teaching Edit Like a Pro: Elements of Nonfiction at the Speak Up Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this week, and as is my habit, I’ll share with you here what I’m teaching there.

Just like novelists need to address character and plot before looking at description and dialog, nonfiction writers need to look at major elements before tackling minor ones. Take each section in turn, because if things in the first section change, they are likely to have a cascade effect on the other elements. But the reverse is rarely true.

Checklist

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I strongly recommend you finish your manuscript before you edit. I’ve heard tell of writers who edit partial manuscripts before proceeding, but I advise against it because you can get stuck in an editing loop, endlessly revising…

So first, finish. Besides, many problems with your manuscript will not be apparent until you can look at the whole thing. So finish first.

When your ms is complete, let it sit for a while—a week or three—then do a fast read-through of your first draft in as short a time as you possibly can. Two or three days. Do this on paper or an e-version, whichever is more comfortable for you, but in a way that’s different from how you write. If you write on a laptop, don’t do your read-through on it. Put the book on an e-reader or print it out.

On this first read-through, you’re not looking for typos or other small errors. You’re looking to see that the major elements are in place. Consider whether you’ve included information that’s extraneous (especially a hazard for memoirists) or whether you’ve omitted information that’s needed. If you’re an expert in your field, you may assume that everyone knows what you know. But how many of your readers will be amateurs or rookies? You may need to include basic information for their benefit.

Don’t edit yet. Just make notes. And compare your manuscript to the checklist.

Of course I have a Nonfiction Editing Checklist.

You may not be able to check off every item in this list, but you should be able to check off most of them.

Nonfiction for the general market is usually simpler than fiction, so there are fewer elements. Here I list them in order of importance according to me:

Personality—The nonfiction equivalent of Character.
Information, Facts, and Historical References—Some of this will be the equivalent of Plot. Double-check everything.
Presentation and Flow—The equivalent of Structure and Pacing.
Narrative voice—Write as you speak, but with more polish.
Mechanics—Punctuation, Usage, Grammar, and Spelling.

What about memoir? Along with some other types of narrative nonfiction, to edit memoir you’ll be better off using a combination of the two editing checklists. You have less leeway than a novelist in developing characters, but you’ll need to structure your story, even if it’s a true one, the way a novel is plotted. And you’ll check facts like any nonfiction writer.

Unusual Uses of Excel for Writers

Regular readers know I’m a little spreadsheet crazy. I’ve offered you a spreadsheet for time and motion studies and another for tracking your productivity. And I’m not the only one, because you’ll notice that Michael Hyatt’s ideal week is plotted on a spreadsheet.

When I wrote about tools, I mentioned some of the things Excel spreadsheets can do, and noted that there might be a whole other post in that.

To-do Lists

If you format your Excel spreadsheet using one of the table options under the Tables tab of the Ribbon, you’ll see arrows appear in each column heading. This lets you sort the list by any column. So perhaps instead of priority, I want to sort my list by date. It’s a two-click operation: click on the arrow, then on “Ascending.” Done.

Sort by date

Sort your to-do list by date or priority.

I like to have a “Done” column that I can put a “Y” in when a task is complete. This helps me track my small wins. I’ve also been known to use the square root symbol √ as a check mark, because it’s easy to type (on a Mac, OPT + v; on Windows, ALT + 8730). You could also insert a proper check mark from your symbol chooser, ✔︎ like so, and then copy and paste it as needed.

If you prefer, you can draw a line through your completed items by selecting the cells, opening the Format > Cells dialog, clicking on the Font tab, and checking the box for Strikethrough.

Use strikethrough formatting to cross things off your list.

Use strikethrough formatting to cross things off your list.

Calendaring

This is one of the main things I use Excel for, because I found that when I put all my work projects into my Calendar app, it got to be overwhelming. And also hard to read, because the size of the daily squares in Calendar is fixed. So now I use Calendar only to keep track of events that require me to be somewhere at a certain time. For work I do at my desk, I use a spreadsheet that looks like a calendar.

Calendar merge cells

Vertex 42 has a ton of Excel calendar templates. My favorite is the Perpetual Calendar Template, which has a yearly calendar on the first page that can be set to almost any year. Then each month of the year is a separate page in the workbook, as you see above.

You can see from this screen shot that I use merged cells to indicate multiday events like the Realm Makers conference or that hypothetical editing job I hope will come in. To merge cells, select them and then open the Format > Cells dialog box, click on Alignment, and tick the Merge Cells box. I assigned a keyboard shortcut (Tools > Customize Keyboard) to this command to make it even easier.

I schedule weekly tasks, like coordinating the courses for The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network, as well as non-work projects that will take a big chunk of time, like planning a Sunday school lesson for the class I’m substitute teaching one week.

A calendar like this can also be used for tracking the timeline of your novel. Since it’s a perpetual calendar, all you have to do is enter the year in which your story takes place, and the template will show what day of the week dates fall on. It will also generate the holidays for that year. It can go into the future if you’re writing science fiction, and into the past for historical fiction.

Note: You can also get future and past calendar information from the Time and Date website.

Project Management

If you’re not familiar with them, Gantt charts can be a little intimidating. But they are ideal for showing multiple things happening at once. At the PEN, for example, we have five courses scheduled for the fourth quarter. They all have different start dates and different durations, and for two weeks, they will all be happening at the same time. This would be difficult to plot on a plain old calendar.

Gantt chart

A Gantt chart may be overkill for most writers, but if you are a self-publishing indie author, it could help you keep track of various stages that might be happening simultaneously, such as cover design and copyediting, or things that have to happen in succession, e.g., page design must be completed by the 21st so proofreading can begin on the 23rd.

At the time I downloaded my Gantt chart template, it was available from Microsoft. Unfortunately, since they’ve moved everything to Office Online, I haven’t been able to find a downloadable version of this template on the official site.

Fortunately Mr. Ruley, an engineering teacher with the Pearland school district in Texas, has put together a page of Gantt chart tutorials and templates. Way at the bottom of the page you’ll find file ts102887601.xltx, which is the Microsoft template in question. You can also get Gantt chart templates from Vertex 42.

Next time, we’ll look at how an Excel spreadsheet can help organize the developmental editing stage of your book.

Take Back Your Time

We all have time. Every week contains 168 hours, and they are yours to spend as you chose. The choices you make determine what you accomplish.

time management

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Your schedule is packed. The question is, with what? Your calendar will reveal what your real priorities are. Making room on your calendar for writing—or anything else—means eliminating something that’s already there. Of the things you are currently spending time on, what are you willing to stop doing so you can spend that time writing instead?

“The calendar never lies. You can claim something is your priority, but if your calendar doesn’t reflect it, you’re lying to yourself.” — Tom Peters

Sometimes the things that keep us from writing are obligations that rightly deserve a higher priority. Family. Day job. But other times, the obligations that keep us from writing fill our calendars only because we are reluctant to let someone down.

You have to decide whom you are willing to disappoint.

If you’re spending a lot of time watching TV, then yay—you can carve out plenty of time to write by giving up TV. That was easy.

If not, someone is getting your time now. You have to be willing to take it back, and have that hard conversation. Maybe it’s the leader of a church committee, or one of the other soccer moms, or a nonprofit board you sit on. For me, it was my neighbors. We used to have dinner every Friday night. We’d go over to their house about six o’clock and not come home until ten o’clock or eleven. Every Friday night. Years on end. When I did the math and realized how much writing I could have done in all those hours, I got a little resentful.

Then I decided to take my time back.

They were offended. My husband was disappointed. I felt guilty. But I finished my first book and have since finished two more. Just by taking back my Friday nights. And ticking off my neighbors.

Understand, I didn’t cut them off completely. We still socialize on occasion. Just not every week.

“You cannot soar with the eagles if you’re wasting your precious time gaggling with the geese.” — James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel II

Your spouse and kids and parents and church family have a valid claim on a portion of your time. But only your maker has a claim on ALL of your time, and if you were made to be a writer, you dishonor your creator by not investing time doing the thing you were made to do.

A Menu, Not a Rulebook

When we started, I noted that all these systems and methods I have laid out to not constitute a rulebook. This series of articles is a menu from which you can pick and choose.

Whatever methods you use to manage your time, remember to be flexible. As Michael Hyatt put it, “The calendar was made for man, not man for the calendar.”

Be willing to fail and try again with something else. Tailor these systems to you. That means trying on, adjusting the fit, and discarding what’s not your style.

As you learn more about what works for you, you’ll find freedom within your organizational systems.

A final warning: Don’t try to implement a bunch of these changes at once. Pick one. Try it for thirty days. If it doesn’t work, try something else. If it does work, maintain the habit and add another.

Organizing systems, to-do lists and schedules are not meant to bind you. They are meant to free you to accomplish your best creative work.

Put Boundaries Around Your Writing Time

When we talked about flow, I mentioned Mark McGuinness’s advice to ring-fence your time. The question then is—how?

Actually, your first question might be—as it was for one student who took my time management seminar a few months ago—what does that even mean, “ring-fence your time”?

ring fence boundaries

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A ring fence is a corral. It not only keeps things in, it also keeps things out. To ring-fence your creative time is to set apart a block of time into which you will allow no distractions, either from yourself or others.

Which isn’t to say that it’s easy. But that’s the goal. Continue reading

Schedule a Day of Rest

Regardless of your religious persuasion, I encourage you to take a sabbath. Give yourself one day off a week. Doesn’t really matter which day.

In The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell recommends taking one day a week completely off and not writing at all: “Taking a day off from writing actually makes me more productive, not less. Amazing, but it works.”

So take that day off, and when you are planning your daily and weekly quotas, don’t count it as a work day. Continue reading