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Take Your Writing From Good to Great

Lesson 7 of 7

Listen to Your Words

Jennie Nash

Take Your Writing From Good to Great

Jennie Nash

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Lesson Info

7. Listen to Your Words

Lesson Info

Listen to Your Words

The last skill that I wanna talk about is listening to your words as if they're a song on the radio. So, words, good writing, as we've seen in some of these examples, just sort of sits there. Great writing usually has a beautiful rhythm and sound. And this is a piece of writing that's very rarely taught, because at the very beginning I talked a lot about the rules of grammar that we all write by. You've gotta follow the rules. Thank goodness for the grammar teachers, 'cause if we didn't have them, it's hard for it to be clear without good grammar. But if that's all you're paying attention to, you're missing a lot of the power of what writing can do. And when you get and you tap into the way words sound, what you're really talking about is somebody's voice. And somebody's voice has everything to do with their point of view, it has everything to do with their perspective, with their burden of knowledge. That's what we want. These beautiful books that I've talked about, the Trevor Noah me...

moir, Darin Strauss's book, Chip and Dan Heath's Make It Stick, a fantastic book, any book that you know and love has the sound of an authentic voice. It is a sound of a real person with their own rhythm and their own way of speaking and their own way of seeing the world. And what they've done is this act of unbelievable generosity they've let us into it, they let us see it. And this idea of, you know, writing is so powerful because you're raising your voice, you're claiming your story, and I insist that this is true even if you're writing an email, even if you're writing a cover letter, sadly, even if you're writing a text about ordering dinner. You do want to speak the way that you think to claim your voice, to raise that. It's just an act of incredible power to speak in your own voice, and that means knowing your own voice, which is very hard to do, actually. It's very hard to do. And that's where that practice comes in. So at this stage when you're getting your writing from good to great, read it out loud and listen. Listen to the way it sounds, and listen to the writers you love. Read them out loud. There's an essay that recently got a lot of play on the internet when the eclipse happened. There's a beautiful essay by Annie Dillard, who's a great nature writer. She wrote an incredibly moving book called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. And she wrote an essay about the eclipse that you can just go Google it because it was everywhere. I believe The Atlantic reprinted it around the eclipse. It's short, but it's so incredibly powerful and moving and so visceral, and she's describing being in the eclipse, but the way she does is is so unique and lyrical, and it's like here is a master writer in a little tiny, I think the essay is maybe 1,200 words. It's very short. But you're just in it, and you just feel it, and you feel the authenticity of her voice, and she makes it so that you're there in the eclipse. It's so powerful. And that's why we love these writers, 'cause they take us there, and in order for you to do that, you've gotta raise your own voice too. So, these are some of the things to think about when you're hearing your writing. Is it rhythmic, is it repetitive? Repetition is a huge problem. Is it pleasing, does it just sound good? Is it clear? I love the word snappy, is it snappy? Is there a little joy to it, a little spark to it? Is it evocative, does it paint a picture in people's mind? And you can do this even when you're writing for work, a pitch or a presentation, or you're arguing for a promotion whatever the thing is, you can use all of these skills. Good writing is good writing. It doesn't matter what the form is. All of these things come to bear on good writing. And the next time you get an email that's a cold email like that one that I got, and you respond to it positively or negatively, try to discern why. And I can guarantee you, some of these things will strike you. It's like oh, it's linear, it's clear, it's evocative, it's authentic, they know who I am, they're speaking to me, they know what they're asking. These things are all present there. So I'm going to give you a tiny example of how to take writing to a more lyrical level. This is a book title a client of mine was using as her working title. How to Use Summer Camp Secrets to Raise Optimistic, Resilient, Independent, Competent Kids. That's a mouthful. So optimistic, resilient, independent, I mean, I feel like I have to take a breath, competent kids, like that's just a mouthful. And it's kind of just a lot to wrap your mind around, so as a working book title, great. It's like, okay, we know what you're writing about, we know your point, we know your point of view, we get a sense of your structure, it's secrets, like a lot of things that we needed to have in a book are contained in this working title. But when we got closer to the point when we were pitching her book to agents, okay, now we need a snappier title. We need a title that gets your voice, that has some rhythm to it, that's fun, that gets an emotional reaction. And so the author made a grid, a list of about 25 different ideas, and we were just going back and forth, back and forth, and this was the one that she went out with a pitch with, Happy Camper: Parenting Secrets from 30 Years of Summer Camp. I mean, that's just great, right? Compared to the others, I'm gonna go back. So, this is what I mean by flat. It's sort of like it's a little exhausting for the reader. And it's like what, I don't know, eight words, but it's still exhausting. It makes the reader have to kind of work hard, and you have to take a breath, and it's not pleasing, and then Happy Camper, it's like you just smile, you're done, it's like, oh, that's delightful. Parenting secrets from 30 years of summer, it's like, yes, please tell me. So that's what we're always after. It's a tiny example, but you wanna do this with all of your work. Here's another example. This is a headline from my own website that I had for a while that I thought was so great. A Method, Not a Miracle. I'm like, don't you get it? And the answer is no, people don't get it, because what, what's the method, what's the miracle? But to me it was like, oh it's so good. But some testing showed us actually people have no idea what that is. So we started playing with this idea, it's book coaching, it's a method for writing, it's a method for getting feedback, it's deadlines, it's this whole process, and I kept saying it's like going to the gym. Like, if you wanna get more fit, you're gonna go to the gym, you're gonna buy a membership, you're gonna go, and it's a thing you're gonna do, it's a process. So we started saying it's like a gym membership for writing. Okay, that's good, but it doesn't have that fun thing. It's sort of just like, eh, it's like, okay. And we eventually ended up with A Personal Trainer for Your Writing Life. Which is just great, right? You get the, I'm like saying right, don't say no. (laughter) It's great, right? But you can see that it's just got that funness, that snap to it, and it's clear and it's linear, and it makes sense and it's logical, and it's got an argument. It's all there. That's what you wanna do with every piece of writing. These headlines and title are little tiny things, but that's what you wanna do in the big picture, too. So in conclusion, I just wanna go over the things we've learned. You wanna think before you write. You wanna think about what you're trying to do, who you're trying to do it for, what they're gonna take away from this, what you want from doing this. Be very intentional about that. And you don't wanna hold on so tightly to your words that you can't get better. Getting better by definition means you've gotta let go of your precious words and think about them like practice. Who could imagine that you could write an entire book, for example, without a bunch of practice? I mean, you've got to be able to throw words out. And I argue that this is true for, I mean that cover letter my daughter writes, I don't even wanna tell you how many iterations of that cover letter she wrote. But she had a fantastic cover letter. You know, you just do it again and again and again and again. With query letters going out to agents, I often take my writers through 12, 15. One of my writers, Sam Polk, whose book For the Love of Money was a beautiful memoir about his money addiction and his time on Wall Street. I have 33 versions of his query letter that we went back and forth on. It was every single little tiny nuance of that cover letter had to be just right, and had to be just perfect, and that's a lot of iterations. But the payoff, he was published by Scribner. The payoff was good. You wanna make sure your writing is on the page and not stuck in your head, and when you get feedback, that's the thing to really be asking. Is it on the page? Do you see my vision? Do you get what I'm trying to do? Is it clear, and you wanna look for feedback that's telling you yes or no. And if the feedback is like, nope, not on the page, it's like, okay, let me get it on the page. And try to get that emotion and judgment out of it, because you're trying to overcome the burden of knowledge and you're trying to get into your reader's head with their burden of knowledge. That's a lot of roadblocks you're trying to break through. Then you wanna make sure your writing is logical, that it makes sense in a linear experience of it, that the cause and effect progression is there. And be authentic, speak in your voice, and speak in the way that is you, and be generous of heart. That's what people come to, and that's what they want. These are all the ways that you can take a piece of writing that's just sort of okay and flat, and really make it great. And that's what I want for everything you write, even your texts for dinner. (laughs) And that is the conclusion. I'm taking your writing from good to great. Jennie, I think we have a few minutes to take some questions, actually before we end, so-- Let's do it. So, let's see if we have any in the studio audience we've got one back there. This isn't for books, necessarily, so thinking more like online publications. Sometimes you can't, or it's harder, to get into your reader's perspective, because you can't really anchor it in the culture or understanding where they're coming form. So besides the one thing that you, for example if you write about photography for example, besides that one thing that you know that you have, it's not a very dynamic reader perspective that you have. So do you have any suggestions on maybe ways to break out of that thought process, or-- Yeah, absolutely. I would actually argue that that situation that you should know who you're speaking to specifically, because one of the things I see a lot with bloggers is, the people who often are doing really well are making people angry. They're taking a stance, such a clear stance, that some people will come at them. That's great, 'cause that means they're speaking to someone. So, I don't know very much about photography, but I imagine that there are schools of thought or ways of being, and you are putting a stake in the ground for that. So that's one thing. And then the beautiful thing about blogging is you can elicit feedback from people. So you can go out to your readers and ask them, and interact with them, and say what do you guys think? What was your favorite post, what did you? A lot of the big bloggers do that. You'll see at the end of the year, they'll say these are the five most popular posts of the year. Are these the topics you guys still wanna hear about. Is this what you're feeling, is this, what would you like to see? Or even when you have the opt in on your newsletter, a lot of people will say let me know what you're thinking about. And if you actually do that, it's amazing. You'll get feedback from people, and you'll start to get a sense of that. I do a Facebook Live thing every month on Tuesday, and it's a thing that I do for people to be, it's an Ask Me anything, but for me it's hugely valuable because I see what people are asking, and what they're curious about, and what they're worried about, and what they wanna know. So it's hugely helpful for me. So there are ways that you can discern that. Does that help? She's like, no, not really. (laughs) In theory it does, but I think that, and I don't write about photography, that was just an example, but. So, thinking about writing things that are a little bit more abstract, like about culture, or about politics or things like that, it's not necessarily like taking a particular, it's asking people to come and see your perspective. So maybe you're doing a feature from a specific kind of writer who's writing on something, and so getting into a reader's perspective, if you think you have a global audience, it's kind of hard to be like okay, this particular person would like this because they like, besides the fact that they already like maybe the writer. You understand what I mean? Yeah, yeah, but again I think you can know. Let's say you're writing about, I mean, there's been so much writing, just the times that we're in, a lot of the political commentary, a lot of very angry commentary. But knowing what your stance is, knowing what you stand for, knowing, okay, so you know, for example, you're not gonna pull in somebody who's way over here. That's never happening. You're not gonna pull somebody way over here, they probably don't need it. So you know you're on a spectrum of political thought. You know you're speaking to someone in a range and you want to pull them closer, or maybe you are speaking to somebody way over here. You've gotta know, in general, what slice of the spectrum, that's the word that I'm looking for, that you're speaking to. And knowing that is gonna change how you, what you say, right? You're gonna say something different, if you're having a conversation with a group of people who just so completely doesn't get where you're coming from or your perspective, and you want to rattle them, you're gonna do something different than if you are trying so shock the people way over there. So it's-- And like find your space and hope-- And be intentional, know what you're trying to, a perfect example of this is Hillbilly Elegy, the memoir that J.D. Vance brought out in about his growing up in the very depressed Rust Belt, and he went to Yale Law School. And this book, maybe it was on the best seller for months and months and months, best seller list. And he got a ton of criticism for speaking for the poor white working class. But he was very intentional that that's what he was doing, he was trying to explain where he came from, and his background and his culture and his perspective, and he didn't mind that he was gonna upset people. And he drew fire for that, but he was very clear what he's trying to do there. And his book was very political, but he knows who he's speaking to, and who he's not speaking to. So it's not a specific person all the time, but you can identify the group. Know, be intentional, that's usually the point. And if you're not, if you're just sort of vague, like I'm just gonna talk about this thing that's going on in the culture, that's why your writing's gonna be flat. You know, you've gotta know what you're doing, why you're doing it, who you're doing it for, and it'll amp up any kind of writing.

Class Description

For most professionals, writing is a major part of their work. Every day they write emails, cover letters, presentations, proposals, speeches and memos—all of which are needed to accomplish a specific goal. But if the writing is flat, fuzzy and unfocused, chances are the piece won’t have the desired impact.

What makes writing truly effective? It’s not about the grammar, word choices or sentence structure. It’s about being able to step back from the work and think like an editor. In this class, book and writing coach Jennie Nash will teach you the five key self-editing skills you need to take any piece of writing from good to great.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Figure out why your writing is falling flat.
  • Build revision into your writing process.
  • Take off your writer’s hat to assess the big picture.
  • Get into your reader’s head.
  • Test the logic of your argument.
  • Consider issues of voice, pacing and authority.
  • Listen to your words as if they were a song on the radio.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

How to Get Perspective Handout

Words Are a Renewable Resource

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes


Tomas Verver

Thanks Jennie for the great online course. It helped me improved my communcation and writing skills. It's helps make the proces of writing also more fun. I also read the books Made to Stick and some other referenced material. I agree we need to write from the perspective of the reader. I liked that your discussed different text purposes.


Great class! Jennie gave helpful, specific tips to elevate your writing. She showed several examples of weak writing and how to make them shine. I loved how she said, "Let yourself be a practicer." This idea that good writing takes tons of practice and we have to be okay throwing words out. I also loved the tips of getting into the reader's head as well as our character's head. We have to always be thinking and asking did we get our point onto the page? How can we make it clear to the reader.

Irina Aristarkhova

Jennie Nash is a great speaker, and I really liked the Q&A part of this class. I wish even more time could be left for questions, because the audience members seemed as a very advanced group of writers and their questions were helping to clarify the lessons. This class would be very helpful to those who have arguments and points to make and not just write for the sake of writing (for themselves and their narrow community of writer-friends). There was also a moment when Nash mentioned her dislike of "writing groups." I would love to hear more about that. I wish this training would be given to students of writing BEFORE they are asked to write anything as these are "higher order" type of lessons that the professional writing community often shuns to raise because they are actually very hard to address.