Posts Tagged ‘Laurie Winslow Sargent’

On Being an Illiterate Writer

Image: Grant Cochrane /

Image: Grant Cochrane /

by Laurie Winslow Sargent:

In cleaning myself up a bit on the web, I deleted an old blog I started eons ago called Faith and Family Abroad. I was going to reflect there on lessons learned when I lived with my husband and kids in Norway as expats for a few years.

Here’s a note from that old blog:

One of the most life-changing aspects of living abroad was experiencing what it feels like to be temporarily illiterate.

I learned what it feels like to be the lonely mom on the side of the soccer field who can’t understand other moms nearby as they chatter away animatedly. (That’s tough on someone who is naturally social!) I realized how embarrassing it is to not be able to read your own child’s school papers, and feel mystified by instructions teachers send home.

I felt stupid, even knowing I’m not stupid.

I recall wandering about the grocery store while trying to read package labels using a foreign language dictionary. It was exhausting! After an hour, I would  come home with a loaf of bread and a soup packet.  Storefront signs, road signs, even dishwasher manuals all became adventures in word dissection.

Even after acquiring Norwegian language skills that allowed me to read bits and pieces, understanding a sermon in our Norwegian church was a struggle. I was terribly grateful when our pastor gave me a list of scriptures–an outline, in a sense–so I could stay on track somewhat with the message by following along in my English/Norwegian parallel Bible. And never was I so grateful for overheads with song lyrics!  I didn’t always know what I was singing and sang with a terrible accent, but I sang with gusto.

It was exhausting, yet also an incredible opportunity. How many women from other cultures living as expats in my own country feel that same frustration? Living internationally sensitizes us to that. It also helps us appreciate the gift of words in our own tongue which we can use to express ourselves fully–aloud and in print.

I found communication most difficult when it came to expressing feelings.

I caught on quickly to how to say where I was from, how old my kids were, etc. (despite some very funny bloopers). Yet feelings are intricate–as are thoughts on faith. I recall speaking Norwegian with one dear friend, then realized that at some point midway–when feelings were being described–we’d switched to English.

After returning to the USA, I  wept with joy when singing a praise song in English. Oh, the joy of full expression! Yet I am also so grateful for having an overseas opportunity to sing praises in another language as well — shoulder to shoulder with faith-filled friends and family.

As a writer — an illiterate writer in Norway — I felt particularly frustrated. I realized how much of my identity has been in “being” a writer. I felt a little lost in losing that identity for a while. I remember one day, when reviewing my Norwegian grammar mistakes with my teacher, crying out, ” I really AM a good writer! In English, anyway…”

In my class the instructor refused to let us use English at all, even in talking to classmates. I jokingly called her the “English Police” because I was eager to make new friends,  and although other expats in the class were from other countries, English was a bridge between us. Being forced to use only Norwegian helped me learn the language more quickly but also boxed me in.

But I learned so many other lessons in the process.

I learned how freeing it is to write in my native tongue (as a writer yourself, give God a little thanks for that today!).

I also learned that our identity is not defined by what we write, or how well we speak, but instead in Who created us. Personality is not lost even when communication is limited.

Have you ever been forced to be illiterate for a while and unable to speak your thoughts in a way others could fully understand them? How did that feel, and how does that impact you as a writer?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

[If a video ad appears below, ignore it. WordPress sticks ads in posts occasionally, without my ability to preview or change them.]


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.

“How does buying used books online hurt authors?”

By Laurie Winslow Sargent:

Most readers don’t realize how buying used books online can hurt authors.  Conversely, even a .99 Kindle copy can encourage your favorite author to keep on writing.  Near the end of this post, see 3 ways to help authors AND find reasonably priced books.



As a reader, I’m like anyone else. I want the best bargain I can find for the best books. Hey, I’m human.

Some books can be difficult to afford otherwise. I confess to buying hundred-dollar college textbooks used, then reselling them on Amazon Marketplace to replace our broken appliances, including my fridge that recently died.

If only I could find a used fridge selling for $0.00 for only one week, like those great Amazon Kindle deals.  I confess to jumping at those opportunities too. At least I try to review or Tweet about those $0.00 books at @LaurieSargent (if I truly like those books) to give the authors a little promo.

But I know my author friends would love to earn their own fridge money from actual book sales. And the honest truth is that you can often buy a new book directly from an author (often autographed, too)  for only a few dollars more than you would through an online marketplace and bless that author at the same time.

Here’s a little info on how book sales can hurt authors, which you may not know about:

Not one penny of a used book sale goes to the author or publisher. Usually they will never even know the book sold.

Most authors earn income from books in two ways:

a) Advances: An advance against royalties is usually just enough to cover marketing expenses and/or possibly help feed the family while the author writes then markets the book. Advances do not have to be paid back to the publisher, BUT

b) Royalties (a percent of the sale from each book) from each book sale are first deducted from the advance the author has already spent to help support her family. (An advance is an ‘advance against royalties’. )  A typical royaltyon a $17.00 book sold new through Wal-Mart nets the author around  thirty-nine cents. (Barnes and Noble, about $1.00) An author has to earn .39 from a LOT of books to reimburse the publisher for the advance.

So what happens to the author, when a book is purchased used, online?

  • It prevents authors from earning anything on that sale AND competes directly against the sale of a new book.
  •  It takes money away from those who own rights to the books (publisher or author) because they pay hefty fees every month to warehouse new copies and keep them ready for distribution.

NOW I understand why many publishers often put books OOP (out of print) even after only a few years, returning rights to the authors.

Lately I had three different acquaintances tell me how much they loved my books. I was thrilled to hear that, but a bit disheartened to learn they bought the books online used. I would never have known, had they not told me. And frankly, I would rather have GIVEN them the books.

Also, when my friends are done with my books, I desperately hope they will give my books away as gifts, instead of selling them online, because every additional used book online competes directly 1:1 against a corresponding new copy.

3 Ways To Help Authors AND Find Reasonably Priced Books


1)   Consider buying the book new. Sometimes on sale (but still new) is only a few dollars more than a used copy. Or you can get an autographed copy directly from the author’s website. Not only will the author get a few cents, you may prevent that book from going prematurely out of print.  Sales numbers from bookstores influence whether or not an agent or publisher will be willing to take on the author’s next book. Enough readers buying new copies can influence the author’s career!

2)   If you want a book desperately and truly cannot afford one, try asking the author to give you a review copy. Then be willing to Tweet or Facebook about it if you like it.

3) Keep in mind that YES those .99-9.99  Kindle sales DO count as NEW! The author gets a tiny bit of income, knows about and can get excited about the sale, and the publisher is happy too and will want the author to write more books. (Do you know Kindle books can also be downloaded to computers, as Kindle for PC?)

By the way, if ONLY used copies for the book you want are offered on Amazon, the book may be out of print. BUT the author may still have new copies at her website. If so, she bought the copies from her publisher for resale, and getting the money back for those might make her day!

Remember–even the best-written books can go out of print when enough used books make it impossible for publishers to keep new copies in stock.

Now, if only college textbooks didn’t cost a hundred dollars apiece. Sigh. We’ll see how my conviction for helping fellow authors holds up when child #3 needs more textbooks. Hopefully there will by .99 versions by then. But if I can buy a $10 copy, when a $6 used book is available? I consider that a $4 gift to a hard-working author.

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.

New Twitter Page for Christian Writers @Tips4C_Writers

This year I’ve enjoyed using Twitter as @LaurieSargent and have an interesting assortment of followers, from parenting experts to writers. However, since I always seem to be bursting with news and tips specifically for Christian writers, I now have a second  Twitter page, 4 Christian Writers at @Tips4C_Writers (You can see  my current Twitter feed in the Sell Your Nonfiction navigation bar on the right.)

I’ve been connected with people in the Christian writing industry for two decades now, and blessed by many writers, editors, agents and publishers.  Nearly every day some great new writing resource comes to me in an RSS feed, a blog subscription, or directly from one of hundreds of authors I know.

By nature, I’m a “connector”. I feel compelled to share great things that cross my path. I’ve put many on Facebook at  Laurie Winslow Sargent: Tips for Readers, Writers, & the Eternally Curious  and will continue to do so, but think Twitter may be handier for writers to access for quick tips and links.

Q. “How will @Tips4C_Writers benefit me as a writer?”

A: Two ways. You will find: 1. great companies, organizations and people who help writers (in the list of those I Follow, not necessarily those who follow me) and 2. helpful resources and links, in my tweets.

I hope to help writers find information from and about:

  • highly reputable agents
  • book publishers (mostly traditional, royalty publishers within the Christian Booksellers Association: CBA)
  • Christian magazines in print and online
  • a few marketing resources, specifically for writers
  • writing industry publications
  • Christian writing organizations, and
  • authors who teach other writers.


  • writing tips
  • dates/locations for writing events (conferences & workshops)
  • tech tips helpful to writers
  • publisher news
  • anything else I think will benefit writers. I expect my followers to be aspiring, intermediate and advanced writers, or folks who share my love for encouraging writers.

Q. “Will you follow me back if I am an author?”

I will most likely follow you back at @Tips4C_Writers  if you yourself provide valuable help for other writers. (However, I don’t often follow back self-publishing companies, especially ones I’m unfamiliar with.)

However, at my other Twitter page @LaurieSargent, I DO follow back most authors, bloggers, and organizations who help me grow as a person or benefit my followers.  @LaurieSargent is also connected with my parenting blog, and there I follow parenting organizations, child advocacy groups, Christian ministries, educational resources, Christian authors with family-friendly books, some general parenting authors, and family oriented blogs/websites.

I hope you’ll visit @Tips4C_Writers and click on my Lists to see people and companies in the Christian publishing industry and follow my writing-related tweets!


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