The Future of Writing

“The art of prophecy is very difficult, especially with respect to the future.”*

That is no less true in the world of writing and publishing than in politics or business. What will be the hot topics of the next year or decade? Few predicted two years ago that we’d see a huge resurgence of such backlist books as  Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, Albert Camus’s The Plague, and A Journal of the Plague Year (1722!) by Daniel Defoe.

Should we try to be current or should we aim to be evergreen? When trying to figure out what to write next, it can be a difficult question. In general, I think we should avoid the current or trendy unless that new fad happens to hit our sweet spot—something we already have some experience with, interest in, or knowledge of.

A corollary is that we probably shouldn’t worry whether our interests are in favor or not with the reading public. We should write about what interests us. You can’t fake enthusiasm. Your passion will capture readers.

Roger Burlingame wrote in 1946: “A few years ago there were resurrections of the Brontës, Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen, whose novels of manners presumably belong to an area on which the door had definitely shut… So it is never safe to say that a book or a genre is dead or fatally dated.”** And the Jane Austen revival seems to have had remarkable staying power even to this day.

If something out of date or passé interests you, don’t worry about it. Write what you care about. Write with excellence. And see what happens.

*This phrase or variations of it have been identified as a Chinese or Danish proverb, and also attributed to Mark Twain, Samuel Goldwyn, Nostradamus, and others. But it likely originated with physicist Niels Bohr.

**Roger Burlingame, Of Making Many Books, (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University PRess, 1946, 1996), p. 328.

Dante and Darth Vader

With the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante this month, I read his Inferno for the first time. Much was as expected, yet I was surprised as well.

I knew that in the book Dante is taken on a tour of hell with the ancient Roman poet Virgil as his guide. The best-known line, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” greeted me as it greeted Dante on entering the underworld. There he found descending circles of the damned for such sins as lust, greed, violence, fraud, and betrayal.

Dante was not only a poet but a political figure in Florence around the year 1300. So he achieves a certain measure of revenge while in exile by writing his epic and describing the gruesome punishments of his enemies. He and Virgil also meet other political, financial, and religious notables from that era of Italian history.

What surprised me was that they also encounter not only those from ancient Greek history but also from Greek mythology. At first this seemed to be an odd syncretism, a strange mixture of two religions. On reflection, however, I think this was Dante’s attempt to integrate everything into his Christian world view. For him, even pagan myths must submit to the Christian story.

It would be like integrating the Star Wars universe or the world of Harry Potter into a biblical cosmology, where Darth Vader and Dumbledore both find themselves under the sway of a powerful Creator God who nonetheless uses sacrifice to resolve all storylines, reconcile all things, renew hope, and make everything right.

Christian theology, as it should, often sees history in God’s hands, how he oversees and guides events for his purposes. We also need to read, see, and hear artists tell stories that show how all the tales of human imagination reflect and bow to the Great Story.

That is a journey for which Dante acts as our guide.

Dante image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay; Darth Vader image by Voltordu from Pixabay

Mr. Ryan’s Class

Propped up on a desk in the front row of the room, thirty-something Mr. James Ryan sat silently surveying my high school English class. I was a junior on the first day of school. The first minute of class. We quieted down waiting to see what he would say. Would he introduce himself? Tell us about class requirements? Have us open a book?

“Are there any questions?” he began.

We were even more silent now. Questions about what? What was he talking about? We were confused. At least I was.

After waiting a moment and hearing nothing, he said, “Ok, then,” and with a wry smile that impishly suggested we had had our chance and wasted it, he began.

Many people have had a teacher or coach who had a major impact. Someone who believed in us when we didn’t believe in or even know ourselves, someone who made a subject captivating that we previously thought was dull as a spoon. Mr. Ryan would become that teacher for me.

Over fifty years later I still remember things he taught us, ideas and practices that have continued to affect my life as a writer and editor.

Consider vocabulary. He exposed us to a wide range of words each with a nuance of meaning that made literature and writing richer and deeper. Memorizing word lists sometimes seemed tedious. But he showed how word selection matters. It can make a huge difference in the power of a paragraph.

Overwhelm is such a great word, he told us. It is a combination of “over” (as in turn over) and “helm” (as in the tiller of a boat). To be over-helmed, then is to be capsized, to be in danger of drowning. Think about how you might use that word, he urged. Not to talk about a delicious new ice cream flavor or when we missed the latest episode of Batman. Instead, we should use it when our world or our perspective on something important has been turned upside down, when we are at least momentarily out of control.

Tone was another key topic he introduced us to—how a piece of writing works on you at a deep level. More than just the ideas or information, the tone can make a piece powerful, memorable, significant. For fifty years I have tried (not always succeeding) to develop tone in my writing and help authors do the same.

That’s where the chapter on tone came from in Write Better. That’s where I learned of the magic and weight of words. That’s where my lifelong journey into creativity, ideas, and story took hold of me. From Mr. James Ryan.

Who was an influential teacher, coach, or relative in your life?

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay


All of us have our insecurities. Perhaps those of us who are writers are above average in this regard.

We hesitate to write. We then hesitate to show anyone what we have written. Then we are reluctant to submit it for publication. Then we doubt anyone will like it if published. Finally, we are distressed that our publisher seems to have promoted another author’s book more—and more successfully—than ours!

That way madness lies.

Over a hundred and twenty years ago, Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, also suffered from this common malady. In 1899 she wrote to her publisher,

I do not think I have been fairly treated as regards the advertising of “The Great Inclination.” The book has now been out six weeks, & I do not think I exaggerate in saying that it has met with an unusually favourable reception for a first volume by a writer virtually unknown. . . . I have naturally watched with interest the advertising of the book, & have compared it with the notices given by other prominent publishers of books appearing under the same conditions. [Others] advertise almost continuously. . . . If a book is unnoticed, or unfavourably received, it is natural that the publisher should not take much trouble about advertising it; but to pursue the same course towards a volume that has been generally commended, seems to me essentially unjust. (117-18)

This letter, excerpted in Roger Burlingame’s Of Making Many Books, is but one of many such examples the author found in Scribner’s correspondence files. He discovered several cases in which Author A would write complaining that he got less advertising that author B. Yet Author B made the same complaint regarding Author A!

Comparisonitis has plagued humanity not just for a century but for millennia. None of us is immune. Sadly we have no magic cure.

One discipline may ameliorate the condition, however. I mention it in Write Better. Gratitude. Remembering to give thanks for all we have been given can redirect our focus from what others have that we do not. We can tamp down our lesser angels by regularly, daily, asking what good things are in my life or what was a highlight of the day.

Certainly we are better off giving energy to our writing than to our insecurities.

Image by MorningbirdPhoto from Pixabay


When my granddaughter decided to try out for the school volleyball team, she asked her uncle (who has been a volleyball coach) for some tips. He not only gave her some pointers on skills but also on how to approach tryouts.

“You can’t always control where the ball goes,” he said, “but there are two things you can control—your attitude and your effort.

“You can cheer on the other girls. You can listen to what Coach says and do it immediately. You can decide not to get down on yourself if you make a mistake but instead try to do better next time. That’s attitude.

“Also don’t be afraid of the ball. Don’t stand there and let it drop in front of you. Go for it and hit the ball hard—even if it goes out of bounds. If Coach tells you to go someplace, don’t stroll. Run there. That’s effort.

“That’s what Coach will be looking for.”

As I listened, it seemed that was much like writing. We can’t control which publishers will say yes, which readers will write positive reviews, how many copies we’ll sell or how many readers we’ll get. And sometimes we can’t even control how skillfully and effectively we will write.

But we can control our attitude and our effort. We can cheer on fellow writers when they get something published, get a good review, or win an award. We can decide to listen to editors and writers who offer good advice about the craft generally or about our writing in particular. We can decide to not get down on ourselves if we don’t write as well as we’d like. We don’t have to be better than the next person. We just need to try to do better than we did the last time. That’s attitude.

In addition, we can practice hard. We can write thirty minutes every day, even if it is just journaling or only for our own enjoyment. We can stick to blogging regularly even if we don’t have thousands of readers but do it instead for the sake of practicing our craft. We can get good advice on the skills and habits needed to write better. We can keep submitting our work to others for input or for publication. That’s effort.

Spending energy on what we can’t control is like trying to put the wind in a bottle. Focusing on what we can control makes the difference.

Image by Keith Johnston from Pixabay

Footnote Your Talks

Once I received a letter from a reader who said that a book published by the firm I worked for had plagiarized his own writing. This was a serious charge and a rather shocking accusation because our book was written by a senior scholar with a stellar reputation. Could this be possible?

What made the case more interesting was that the writer of the letter said he had been a student of this scholar some fifteen years before. The scholar, claimed the student, had incorporated some of the student’s paper into the book we published. And he provided evidence. Several paragraphs from his paper matched exactly or very closely portions of the book.

We sent the material on to the author for his comment. After reviewing it, he admitted it was true. How had it happened?

The author thought the student’s paper was excellent and began referring to it, even reading from it, in his lectures over the next several years. Slowly, in his class notes, the student’s name became detached from the quotations. Then the quotation marks disappeared. When it came time to write a book based on these lectures, the author had forgotten where this material in his notes had come from and assumed it was all his own.

How did we resolve this? We and the author agreed to revise the book in the next printing. We put the student’s material in quotation marks and gave due credit in the footnotes.

The Lesson to Be Learned: Whenever you prepare a talk, a sermon, or a lecture—always footnote your speaking notes as if it were to be published. You never know when you might take some old material (even decades later) and work it into a published piece. Include not only the name of the person responsible for the quote (or for the point of fact) but also, the name of the book, the publisher, date of publication, and page number. Then you won’t have to spend hours trying to track it down—which can sometimes be impossible, even in the internet era. I know—I’ve tried.

Corollary: When speaking, give credit to your sources, whether quoted or summarized. You can’t give full bibliographic information since that would make your talk impossible to listen to. But you can say, “As David Brooks says in his new book . . .” That is intellectually honest (you didn’t come up with the idea), and it doesn’t unduly interrupt the flow of your talk.

photo credit: Adrian Schweiz (Pixabay)

The Magic of the Particular

One temptation writers face is to offer a big idea (or maybe just a moderate-sized idea) without any specifics or examples. We give broad, general advice or theories which may be valid but which may also numb minds. As readers, we may struggle to understand and to remember the point.

Our brains crave the specific. This principle is called moving from the general to the particular. Taking my own advice, then, let me give a concrete example.

Consider the advice to avoid clichés, those standard phrases or images that have become verbal wallpaper. It’s good advice. But can I make that advice more specific? Yes. Avoid worn-out phrases like, “I held her at arm’s length.” Now you have a better idea what I mean.

That, however, is still not detailed enough to understand how to implement the general idea of cliché avoiding. I need more. What can I do? I can add: when you spot such a phrase, delete it or turn it into plain language. Rewrite it as, “I started spending less time with her.”

That, however, while valid, can be a bit dull. Here’s another strategy. Extend the metaphor embedded in the cliché. Again, good, general advice but can I give an example? Yes, I can.

Not      I held her at arm’s length.

Better  I held her at arm’s length wishing my arm were longer.

Now you understand much better what I mean. “Extend the metaphor” is theoretical and general. We have a hard time knowing exactly how to implement this excellent piece of advice when it stands alone. But with an example! Ahh! The mists of confusion disappear and the sun shines forth!

Moving the other way, from the particular to the general can work just as well. We start with a story about parents and children, or about bosses and employees, or about trees and squirrels. Then we draw a general principle from the tale.

Want to lock in understanding for your readers? The delight is in the details.

photo credit: Ryan McGuire, Pixabay

Smaller Is Bigger

In Write Better I emphasize the importance of staying focused on a narrow audience—even writing with just one person in mind. That can provide excellent guidance in knowing at what level to write, what to put in and what to leave out, what kinds of stories to tell, and how to organize your piece.

Don’t write for all parents, but for parents of teens.

Don’t write for all parents of teens but for parents of gifted teens.

Don’t write for all parents of gifted teens but for single-parents of gifted teens.

Counterintuitively, limiting your audience can increase your readership. How? By making sure you go deeply into that narrow group. Writing successfully for all parents is hard because there are so many other resources and bestselling books already available. You might therefore get fewer readers for the broad audience than for the narrow one where there is less competition.

I tried to follow my own advice in Write Better. Instead of addressing all writers, I focused on nonfiction writers for general audiences. Admittedly that’s still broad, but it meant I could leave out character and plot development as well as technical and academic writing.

Nonetheless, books often have some in secondary audiences read over the shoulders of the main audience, finding much of value. That’s what happened to me as well.

Unexpectedly, I’ve had people tell me Write Better is valuable for speakers. While I don’t address topics like gestures, intonation, or preparation, we have a lot of overlap between writing out a talk and preparing a magazine article. Knowing your audience, constructing a persuasive argument, developing tone, becoming more creative, handling criticism—all these and more are of value both to those who speak and those who write.

Less is more, you see. And a smaller audience can get you a more readers.

photo: matunin Pixabay

The Singular Plural

Mixing singular and plural is generally a no-no.

Suppose I write, “The senator were having trouble getting re-elected after he started wearing his toupee upsidedown.” Even if you are not a grammar hound or a hairstylist, you are probably cringing. If the subject is singular, the verb must be too. If the subject is plural, so must be the verb. And no fair changing midsentence!

Yet in one situation, this is changing. It has become more acceptable to write sentences in the form: “. . . a person . . . they . . .” or “ . . . everyone . . . their . . .” This is an effort to get around “he” or “he and she” language which can be awkward or problematic. Switching from singular to plural nouns can solve many difficulties. For example:

Apparently, somebody at the golf course thought their putter would float.

This is so much better than:

Apparently, somebody at the golf course thought his or her putter would float.

Unfortunately, the “singular they” has become so common that it is often used when it is just not necessary. Consider:

Everyone must decide for themselves if kangaroos should be allowed to run for office.

Obviously, we don’t want everyone to decide for himself or herself! That’s as awkward as an elephant on stilts. But there is an alternative. Changing the singular/plural mix to pure plural is the way to go:

People must decide for themselves if kangaroos should be allowed to run for office.

By making everything plural we have the best of both possible worlds: it’s graceful and includes everyone, even kangaroos.

photo: As-Dew, Pixabay

The Fruit-Tree Structure

One challenge in writing a book is how to structure it. Putting all the material together in a coherent package is tough. Where to start, where to finish, how to best arrange things in the middle, and what to leave out(!)—it can all be rather daunting.

In Write Better I include a chapter offering a dozen common options for organizing a nonfiction book. But there are dozens more, and when I read a new book, I am always on the alert for effective ways writers use for presenting their ideas.

Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is an important book on an important topic that also offers an interesting structure that could well work for others. The main focus is the story of Walter McMillian, an innocent man who was sentenced to death row in Alabama. His case and how Stevenson became involved is fascinating and dramatic.

But every ten pages or so Stevenson pulls back from this tale and gives background information regarding related aspects of the justice system—trying minors as adults, sentencing practices in different regions, the use of solitary confinement, the political history of Alabama. These topics branch off the main trunk of the memoir like branches of a tree laden with heavy, nutritious fruit.

Stevenson also includes flashbacks on his own story or tells how he was building his organization (as a subplot, if you will) in parallel to the McMillian case. If Stevenson had structured the book around these “side” issues, readers could have gotten glassy eyed when statistics are piled up or legal precedents are detailed. But since that information is wrapped in a compelling story—it makes all the difference.

In addition, that content is presented in an emotional package of his passion that we as readers get involved with, being incensed about the many outrageous stories of injustice that he tells along the way. As readers we end up caring and wondering what we can do too.

As you think about writing a book, then, consider whether or not you have a story that:

♦    you were personally involved with
♦    stretched out over a period of years
♦    had barriers and problems that needed to be overcome
♦    touches on a variety of substantive issues you are concerned about that could branch off of your main storyline, and
♦    has a narrative arc that builds tension, has setbacks, and perseveres to a resolution that gives hope

I think you could find this a very fruitful approach.

photo: Hans Braxmeier, Pixabay