Know Your Purpose, Own Your Power
So the first skill that you're going to learn to take your writing from good to great is to know your purpose and own your power. And really that was what we were just talking about is know what you're doing, know why you are doing it. And the way I always talk about this is I say, you've got to think before you write. You've got to really think about who it's for, what is it gonna do? Where is it gonna sell? Who is gonna use it? And be very specific about this. I often think, if I only got to ever say one thing about writing, it would be, think before you write because writing is a very natural thing. Writers like to write. Usually writers are readers, we feel very comfortable doing it. We like to do it, it feels good to do it. It's often therapeutic to do it. I mean, who in this room, at one point or another, kept a journal? Everybody, right? It's a thing that we do. And so, thinking before you write for other people is the mark of somebody who is trying to be a professional. You've ...
got to stop and think, okay, this is not just for me anymore. This is for an audience. So the specific ways that we do this is you stop and you think, who is your audience? Who exactly is this for? The gentleman who asked the question about the minister character in the thriller, you know your audience are thriller readers. They're not people from a certain religion, right? So you're gonna approach your work knowing who that audience is. In the case of this gentleman here, you probably have a really good idea who you want this book to impact. So very specifically, know who your audience is. Know what your point is. I said before, every piece of writing is an argument and you want to know what that point is. So often times in writing classes, you're taught this idea of theme. And I like this question better than theme because theme feels slippery, it's hard to pin down. But if I just say what's your point? Anybody can answer that. What point are you making about human nature? What point are you making about the world? What point do you want people to walk away from this book knowing or believing? And every piece of writing needs to have that answered. If you're writing a poem, if you're writing a middle-grade fantasy, if you're writing YA, you're writing mystery, thriller, non-fiction, memoir, you're making a point about human nature and the world. And you've got to know what it is. And it often sounds like a bumper sticker. And that's okay, especially at the start. We had a really fascinating experience when I started teaching online writing workshops, I would ask people to write in to me and tell them what their point was. And what was fascinating was literally everybody would have the same point. And it was like, what is going on here? And that's when we realized that. And the point usually has something to do with connection, love, being seen for who you are. That type of thing. And it turns out you can write anything from the same point. You can write five million different stories, or books, or arguments from the same point. And that's kind of the beauty of it is that by stating your point in a universal bumper sticker kind of truth, you know what it is but then you're gonna bring that to life in your own special, specific way. We also want to look at, when we think about our writing, what is the best structure for this message? So what form is going to carry this message? We don't think of structure and form so much in writing as we do in other mediums. But it's just as important. A painter has to decide am I maybe making a mural on the side of a building? Or am I making a little miniature painting? Writers don't tend to stop and think in that same sort of way but maybe in genre, or general length, but structure within the writing is really important to know how you're going to move that forward. Are you going to have a lot of voices? Are you going to have, if you're writing non-fiction, is your story going to be in it at all? Is it going to be from third person, from first person, all these questions about structure, you really have to ask before you write. I can't tell you, somebody just mentioned it here, the idea that you might finish a whole book, manuscript and somebody might read it and say, I think you've written this in the wrong point of view because they're missing something. You can usually figure that out before you start if you're intentional about it. And then what is the most logical order for the information? This idea of chronology, and time line is very important. We're gonna talk about that more in a little minute. I want to use an example of this first point of knowing your power and your purpose and how it's gonna work. And I really hope that she never watches this class because I'm using the example of my daughter. (laughing) I know, I'm so terrible. I should have asked her permission but I didn't. (sighs) This is my 21 year old college senior who is applying for jobs for the first time. And this is her cover letter that she was working on and asked me to help with. So this was the first version which was kind of weak. So she says, I am writing to apply for the Humanities Teaching Fellow position at City High School. I did change the name of the high school. I am passionate about history and am excited about starting my career as a teacher. This is perfectly fine. There is nothing wrong with it. It's fine, right? It's like, fine, fine. (laughing) But do we want fine? I don't think we want fine. So this is what we did. We went through and I said to her, who is your audience? Be specific, think about it. And we talked about it and this is what she said. It's a tired or overworked department chair who is slogging through hundreds of letters hoping to find great candidates. She probably hears the same thing all the time. She is someone who herself chose a career as a teacher. So just getting that in your head changes things, right? It's not a generic person reading this letter. It's a specific person. And anything that you're writing, you need to get that specific. What is your point, why are you passionate? That's what an editor is gonna say. Okay, you're passionate, but why? Tell me why, I want to know. And she says, I am applying for this position because I really believe in what the humanities can do for individuals and society. I am inspired by the education I received and want to pay it forward. This is not just a job to do for a few years before I find something better. It's what I want to do with my life. So, way better than just, I am passionate. Then, what is the best structure for your message? You want to think about that. So, a short succinct letter that gets right to the point without ramping up because of that exhausted and overworked teacher who is reading it. You want to immediately get there. And what is the most logical order for the information to build this argument? Start with a big idea, some sort of thesis statement and then expand on that in your letter so that the letter has some structure. This is the kind of thing you can ask for anything. This is a tiny little cover letter. You can ask this about any piece of writing and you can see how much better this letter got. I am writing to apply for the Humanities Teaching Fellow position at City High School. Through my history major and literary classes spanning English, theater, environmental studies, and Classics, I've come to believe that the way stories are told often has a greater impact than the factual truth. I'm so proud of my daughter. This is fabulous, right? This is much better than just fine because now, it's the somebody slogging through those things is gonna say, wow, someone applying for a humanities position has taken all these classes in all these departments and they have this point of view. Now either they're gonna like that point of view or they're not gonna like that point of view but I think that's much better than just I wanna be a teacher, and I really wanna be a teacher, and please hire me. You're saying something. You're getting specific. So stepping back and thinking about who your audience is and what your structure is and what you're actually trying to say. And all I did to help her was what an editor does, is say, well, what do you mean by passion? Why do you want this? What do you mean by, your education was inspiring? And the more specific she gets, the better. So hopefully by the time she ever sees that I used this, she'll have a job and she'll be like, it's so fine (laughs).