Archive for the ‘Writing Tips’ Category

Tweak with Caution: Editing true stories from others for your books or articles

Do you enjoy compiling and editing true stories from others, for use in your own books or articles? Here’s a word of caution.

caution sign used to illustrate caution when editing true storiesToday I grabbed a neat book off my shelf to re-read – then realized I’d never read it to begin with. Nor promoted it, as I’d originally intended.

Then I remembered why.

Before the book was published, I was pleased to be asked by the author to contribute a mother-daughter story to it. The author and publisher were highly respectable, and I believed our story would glorify God and hopefully encourage parents.  So I’d emailed a brief version of the story to the author. I fully expected it to be edited to fit the context and style of the author’s book. As a writer for magazines for many years I am used to being edited, so have no problem with that.

However, I also assumed that if the author had any questions related to the story, or had any major additions she wanted to make to it, she would email me.

The day our gift copy arrived in the mail, I was all set to buy a bunch of copies to give to family, friends, and my daughter’s friends. They all knew about or had been part of that story of answered prayer and were excited to see it in print. It was a completely positive story with no bad-guy scenarios, so all involved would have been proud to share it via their social networks. My daughter and her friends loved any excuse to spread the word about how God can work in everyday circumstances. (And who doesn’t like to say they are mentioned in a book?)

Sadly, it didn’t play out that way. Instead, the resulting story made us both feel just awkward enough that we didn’t feel compelled to widely share it. Not upset, nor angry, just  . . . awkward. So it sat on our shelf until now — nearly seven years later.

In retrospect, as I now spend a lot of time in the marketing arena, I simply see this as an unnecessarily  lost marketing opportunity for the author.


The actual result of answered prayer in the story was accurate. My own quotes and thoughts were portrayed accurately. But here’s where the author missed the boat:

1) To make the story more readable and creative, she inserted dialogue and thoughts as if from my daughter, but not provided by her nor me.  The resulting dialogue flowed well and enhanced the story, but didn’t actually reflect what my daughter would have said or felt. It just didn’t quite ring true with her personality. And since it felt awkward to both of us and would have seemed odd to her friends too, it made the resulting story feel less true, so less of a ministry opportunity. Had the author emailed us her additional quotes, it would have been about a ten minute fix to make sure those quotes were closer to the conversation my daughter and I actually had.

2) Not knowing the name of one key person in the story, she made one up. This would have been fine had all our names been made up, but with only one fake name, it was awkward because my daughter’s friends knew she had no friend by that name. On Facebook, she would have had to explain that the story was mostly true, especially the answer to prayer, even if some things were changed. However, it would have taken the author less than a minute to ask me via email the name of the friend in the story. Such a tiny detail, but so important to the person whose name had been changed, and to her friends, and to show the story as fully true.

The book still turned out great, and I’m actually enjoying reading it now. It’s neat to be reminded of God’s love and the way He encouraged us as a family. So truly, no harm, no foul. It just turned into a marketing blunder for the author way back then — and could for another well-meaning author now.

As an author myself, I nearly experienced a much worse-case scenario with an embarrassing misuse of words.

I had briefly offended a story contributor (for one of my own books) by the way I’d phrased a few sentences relating to her child. I thought I was being encouraging but the way I had phrased it came out wrong. I had made an assumption related to special needs that wasn’t accurate, and you know about that word ASSUME: it can make an (first three letters of that word) out of U and ME. In this case it was just ME.

To my great relief I learned this BEFORE I send in my manuscript, so had time to correct it. Thankfully, too, I learned this as soon as I sent my changes to my contributor to ask if there was anything at all I hadn’t gotten right, saying I’m always open to changes. Hopefully that kept the contributor from needlessly agonizing over how to contact me to tell me she was unhappy, and she seemed pleased with my revision.

Sometimes a word or two in the wrong place carries a nuance with it that is unintended and easily corrected.

Giving contributors a chance to review their edited stories or comments is not what’s typically done in the journalism field. Newspaper writers are discouraged from doing this. Time for corrections can push back deadlines or may cause unnecessary challenges, especially when someone quoted accurately doesn’t like the way that appeared in print. (I think this happens most when a quote is taken out of context.)

However, I’ve never quite had the stomach for hard-hitting investigative journalism. I prefer to get my contributors to share their thoughts and have me reflect them as accurately as possible, even if they need extra time to clarify that a bit more. And at least in the book industry, and even with magazine articles with deadlines months out, we have the luxury of a bit more time for fact-checking than something going in tomorrow’s newspaper. However, those of you under tight book deadlines I hope will build in enough time to be able to email edits to your contributors.

None of this may be necessary if you’ve only edited for grammar, clarity, or to condense a story — although condensing may leave out crucial elements, subtly changing a story.  But if you want to add elements to a story to bring it more to life, it would be a great courtesy to your contributors –and a good marketing strategy too — to make sure you got things right. It also goes a long way in building long-term relationships with your contributors, friends, and even family if you dare to quote them!

Your contributor will not only thank you profusely, but is more likely to eagerly and enthusiastically Tweet, Pin, Facebook and email shout-outs about your book that they are so pleased to be a part of!

Your thoughts?


Deeper Takeaway Value: Who is My Reader?

By Laurie Winslow Sargent:

In a former post, I addressed the basic idea of takeaway value.

Let’s go deeper. Ask yourself, “Who is my reader? What is their emotional intent?”

Image by jannoon028 /

Are you offering your reader empty content? Image:                                                  jannoon028 /

In my former post, What is Takeaway Value in Writing? I discussed how critical takeaway is.

I urged you to ask, “How can my article or story meet a need in my reader and impact them?”

In other words, it’s not ‘all about me’. It’s about them.

Sometimes that’s not too complex. A parenting site about interacting with children (see might attract moms or dads, counselors, teachers, or grandparents–anyone interested in child development.

However, for some websites, understanding the emotional intent of the reader is complex and critical. How desperate are they for your information? If your article title (or book, for that matter) promises your reader immediate help in some area, do you deliver?  

That affects the impact of your story or articles, but online that also affects how your reader interacts with your website. Or are they a luxurious reader, reading many of your articles out of curiosity or pleasure? Are they a grab-and-go reader, wanting information NOW?

Emotional Intent and Motives in the Reader

A truly desperate reader may read ONLY one article on your site, but their lives may be forever changed by that. Some websites, believe it or not, are designed for that. The goal is not necessarily audience building or growing numbers. It’s all about changing an individual reader’s life, even with one article.

For example, I edit the Christian-based suicide prevention site Thinking About Suicide for Right to the Heart Ministries. We have over a dozen excellent writers who contribute to that. But as I edit each article I ask myself, Who will be reading this particular article? 

This isn’t as easy as it seems, for either my writers or me as editor.

That’s because although that is definitely a niche site, it attracts three different groups of people. Our readers have three different motives. They are either 1) actively suicidal, 2) have lost a loved one to suicide and need support, or 3) are people or organizations involved in research and suicide prevention.

While the third group may be interested in all our articles, readers in the first group are in a highly emotional state. They have one urgent, immediate need: to find help and hope and stay alive.

Focusing on One Audience–and Reader

Focusing means being aware that (for example) a personal story about how a family found hope and comfort after losing a family member to suicide may comfort someone with a similar loss. It can be problematic then, of course, if a suicidal person stumbles upon that same article and thinks, “Oh well, they’ll get over it if I’m gone.”

Yet suddenly switching POV (point of view) within the same article can be problematic too. Occasionally a natural bridge to that second audience works. For example, we might state directly that while family members eventually can find comfort, it still hurts terribly.

Yet perhaps it’s best for that one article to stay focused on survivors. To attract that audience, I would carefully create the SEO (keywords) that would be typed into search by struggling families. At the same time, I would deliberately avoid using keywords more often typed into search by people who are actively suicidal.

For this reason I may occasionally baffle my writers who have included (in their post titles) fabulous keywords that will definitely help people find our site. Then I go and change those great keywords–to different keywords that instead will help people find that particular article. See the difference?

Yes, we want the latter group to find our website. But we want them to find articles tailored specifically for them, to meet their immediate need.

Takeaway for someone desperate might be that they’ll feel compelled to dial a hotline number immediately. Takeaway for families might be for them to feel understood and find hope in their grief.  Sometimes it just won’t work well to do both in one short article or story.

The Good and Bad of Great SEO:

The beauty of good SEO for your articles (article coming soon here) is that if you zero in one topic, you can tightly focus your SEO on that topic as well. What that means is that it doesn’t matter if your article online is eons old: a needy reader may still find it on the first page of Google Search, especially if you are one of only a few who have offered that very specific takeaway value. (Use great SEO tricks in your print magazine articles too, because many end up archived online.)

However, the detriment of great SEO is that highly emotional, information seeking readers may land directly on your article page but may not see any of the other articles on your site. The consequence? That article MUST offer the takeaway it promises. (Cross-linking to other articles on your site does help, however.) If you wrote a book that will help the reader of that article, link it NOW. Don’t expect the reader to fish around on your website to find out all about you and your books. Remember it’s ‘all about them’, not you.

Knowing Your Reader’s Emotional Intent

It’s by using Google Analytics that I’ve come to recognize three different audiences for our suicide prevention site. I can see specific keywords people have typed into Google search that led them directly to specific articles on our site. (We don’t know who they are, but can tell what country or city they are from.)

This helps put me in the reader’s shoes:

The person who types into Google ‘I want to die’ is a different reader than one who types in ‘2012 suicide statistics’ for a report, or a grieving person who types ‘my spouse took his life’ into a search box. (Most search terms that lead people to our site are emotionally typed in first person. )

Those analytics break my heart. Because I know those phrases are typed in by real live people, I often bathe those site visitors in prayer. Sometimes I can even see where they are in live time, a blinking dot in South Africa for example, indicating someone in that country is reading an article of ours urging them to stay alive at that very moment. It brings tears to my eyes.

This makes it easy to visualize a reader doesn’t it? Sometimes I literally lay my hand on that blinking light and pray for them. I don’t know who they are, but God does.

Who is your reader? What do they want . . . and can you give it to them?

Even if your site is a niche site but has multiple audiences, do try to stick with one POV (point of view) per article. Put yourself in your reader’s place. Make that person feel as if you are talking directly to them and give them some good takeaway–something they can walk away from their computer with, and use in real life.

What is Takeaway Value in Writing?

By Laurie Winslow Sargent:

One common phrase used by writers, editors and agents is ‘takeaway value’ (also spelled ‘take-away value’).

It’s a critical key phrase/concept, which aspiring and advanced writers must consider for every article submission, every book proposal, even every blog post (that you hope strangers will like and share, anyway).

What is takeaway value? Here’s a clue: if I don’t give you at least a little right now, you’ll be highly annoyed with me. You want to know what that phrase means.

Answer: giving your readers something new to walk away with after reading your work, that will change them somehow.

You might offer takeaway for your readers to:

  • help them learn something new and interesting
  • make them laugh
  • make them feel better understood (you’ve been where they are now and survived)
  • give them concrete how-to: to build something new (be that a bird house, a relationship, or a book proposal)
  • give them new hope
  • lead them to great resources
  • motivate them to action (you can help point to what action): make a call, write a letter, start a movement

One takeaway for you reading this post of mine should be:

  • understanding new information (knowledge of writing terminology)

But I can’t  skimp on this. How does simply knowing what a term means help you? It doesn’t, much. You need additional takeaway. You want to know HOW it will help you sell your article or story to a magazine, get that book contract, or garner blog followers, right?

I assume that you want to:

  • understand how why takeaway is critical to selling writing

And to truly get it, I hope you want to know:

  • how to take a specific story or article of yours, improve it, make it most marketable, and help your readers

Here’s where I have to force you into a little introspection. Many writers write stories about incidents they found personally inspiring, or devastating, or unique. Then they cast it to the wind (AKA, cyberspace) hoping someone out there will be equally interested.

Online, you may indeed attract readers who accidentally find you via keyword searches. Yet your work is not done. Those readers are still asking, “What’s in it for me?” Will they finish your story? Return to read more of your stuff?  Have you offered self-absorbed rambling, or something they as a reader can benefit from?

And that’s to get readers to read a free blog post. What’s to make them want to pay for something you have written? Publishers will ask you the same thing. If you don’t offer your (their) potential readers takeaway value, your publisher won’t sell books. They won’t get back their investment in you. If it’s a magazine and they don’t meet readers needs, their reputation will go down and they’ll end up with displeased advertisers. They depend on you as a writer to give them material that will keep their readers asking for more.

A few examples…

While doing some freelance editorial work for one magazine years back, I was sent an article with a plea to do anything I could to fix it. The artwork was already scheduled, and the article assigned. The writer had promised in her a query many exciting tips. In the final manuscript, a few tips were great and many others ho-hum, common knowledge. The editor rightly feared that with too many articles like that, they might lose subscribers who wanted better takeaway value for their money. My solution as editor was to condense the article and pair it with two other stories and a sidebar in the same amount of space the original article took up.

One hard lesson I learned personally many years ago occurred when I wrote meaningful story (to me) about how I was comforted in the midst of a miscarriage, and why. (I wrote it for an editor to whom I’d sold a previous story.) My kind editor said that although she was glad for me, how would my story help another woman who had miscarried? It was one of those ah-hah moments, which forever influenced my writing.

Bringing it home

Your personal story of triumph or tragedy might have excellent elements in it, including interesting dialogue and scene setting, to put the reader in your place. But what do you leave them with, when the story is done?

If  told with impact, your message for your readers should be clear. Yet it may help them to be guided a bit, at the end. Give them some direction or offer an insightful summarizing comment or question for them to ponder. Or provide a list of resources or links, so they learn from you and continue their journey of exploration.

Take a fresh look at your current story idea. Who are you writing it for? What do you hope for them to get from it?

Next up: how to discern your target audience, so you can better anticipate reader’s needs and offer some takeaway to help meet those needs.

“Is my personal experience story publishable?”

One form of nonfiction is the personal experience story.

This type of story uses elements of fiction, including dialogue and scene-setting. With “creative nonfiction”, you get to flex both your fiction and nonfiction muscles!

It’s fun, because unlike with fiction, you don’t have to worry about making up the plot. You simply (or not so simply) tell the story in a way that helps the reader feel as if she or he were there with you.

Personal experience stories can be published in:

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“What’s the fastest way to get an editor to reject my query?”

We’ve discussed how you can net an article contract based on a well-written, one-page query letter. You don’t have to write the whole article in advance. However, don’t shoot yourself in the foot from the start. Your query letter must be as error-free as possible.

I sincerely hope this note about grammar goofs preaches to the choir. I want to assume that you all write flawlessly, and merely need to find homes for your excellent writing. But as I focus on basic article marketing and move on to advanced concepts, I’d be remiss in not at least mentioning how critical it is to check and double-check every sentence you send to an editor, and why:

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