Word Trippers

Barbara McNichol has written Word Trippers, a short book that will help you distinguish between lie and lay, less and fewer, affect and effect, and more. Watch her brief promotional video (below), then head over to her site for more information. I, who am pretty good at such distinctions, get a lot out of Barbara’s book every time I dip into it.

To Write A Good Book, Answer These 3 Questions

1. What is the question my book answers?

2. Who cares? Who is seeking the answer to this question?

3. Where do I find that caring audience?

close up of several non-fiction books

 If you are writing a non-fiction book, it answers some question. “How do I play the guitar?” “How do I find the right midwife?” “What are some low-capital businesses I can start?” Your answer is simple, methodical, and action-oriented. You give some background, some definitions, then lay out the steps the reader needs to take. Then you answer frequently asked questions and list resources for digging further.

Next, you must know who cares about that question. Where is the hungry crowd who is going to be fed by your book? What do you know about them? Are they young? Old? Predominantly male? Female? Young adults? Spanish speakers? What language will they feel comfortable with? You might build a “persona,” a description of your ideal reader that covers age, gender, socio-economic considerations, education, and so on. Give that persona a name. Cut out a magazine picture that represents them, so that you can keep them in mind as you write.

Finally, you have to know how to reach those people who are going to be very interested in the answers you provide to the question you posed. Do they read particular blogs? Do they use particular search terms? Do they belong to professional associations? If you know where they gather, you will be able to let them know about your book.

Answering these questions is not optional, if you want to have a successful book. It is a prerequisite. And if you can’t answer the questions, get help. Discuss them with your friends, your colleagues, your coaches. Post a query on Quora.com; crowdsource your answers.

Do not start writing until you can answer these questions!


Note-taking for the writer

I’m listening to author Amy Tan being interviewed on City Arts and Lectureson NPR. The wonderful interviewer–I missed his name–asked, “Why do you write?” To my surprise, she said she discovered that writing has enabled her to explore her life purpose.

One kind of writing is note-taking–jotting things down as they happen, whether event descriptions or thoughts and ideas. (I wrote this in NotePower, a blog I’ve stopped keeping about notes.) One kind of note-taking is called “journaling,” or keeping a diary. People do this for a variety of reasons–to remember what happened to them; because they want to write; to work out feelings; and more. The International Association of Journal Writers (iajw.org) notes,

At its best, journaling is a fluid cycle where your writing flows and you reap the harvest of self-awareness,clarity, and serenity.
Your writing and life feed each other.
You feel good writing, writing often, and in your own voice.
You enjoy authentically expressing yourself and you learn more as you write more.
You make better sense of your life and how to move forward in the right direction.


The features you want in a journal overlap those of a comprehensive note-taking system, but I find there is a focus on timed entries, on keeping track, on categorizing, on searching, and on prompts for creative writing. I haven’t done a comprehensive survey, but here are a few I’ve tried:

  • 750words.com. The focus is on writing 750 words a day. There are some cute analytical tools to report to you your moods, your focus, and more–and of course, a running word counter. You also get badges for achieving 750 words a day over stretches of time. Very simple interface.
  • Penzu.com. Beautiful skeuomorphic (fancy word that means “looks like the real thing”) design. Nice iPad and iPhone apps. Great feel; limited features–for instance, no search. But good formatting, at least on the Mac. (Formatting limited on iOS devices, due to iOS.)
  • LifeJournal.com. They’ve had a Windows product for years, and recently released a web version–which looks, sadly, very much like a Windows product. But it seems to be the most feature-rich of the journals I’ve looked at. Very rich editing; nice ways to categorize journals; recordings of “wisdom” from experienced journalers; prompts; quotations; and more.

All of these are free or low in cost.

I’ve found the reflection that journaling affords me to be invaluable. When I don’t journal, I feel lost. I record dreams, conversations, discoveries, moments of gratitude, sadness, encouragement, encounters, and more. The stuff of life. And having kept journals fairly regularly for decades, I enjoy reviewing them, remembering what went on in my life over the years. It gives me a sense of continuity. I journaled, therefore I was…

Give it a shot. You might enjoy it.

Association of Independent Authors

It’s not very large, but I suspect it’s going to grow. For now, it is free to join as an Associate; there are also paid memberships, that offer more benefits. You don’t have to be published; you simply decide that you are

AIA logo

an independent author, one who believes in self-publishing.

Why bother? It’s another place to promote yourself and your books, and provide you with incoming links to your website. The value of these is high, although the AIA site has low page rank at present; it is very relevant to authors, and Google cares about that. And as a non-profit, I believe its rank will rise quickly.

There’s a good Resources tab, which has a long list of editors, printers, graphic designers, and more. It seems to be a paid directory, and I don’t think you need to be a member to access it. I’ve joined. Click here or on the logo to check it out.

My Kindle book is $.99 for the next six days

How To Write A BookMy publisher is participating in an Amazon campaign that puts my Kindle book at a discounted price for the next six days. You can check it out by clicking here.

Actually, here’s a secret: If you are determined to write a good non-fiction book, you can do it without reading my book! Just remember: Structure precedes content. Create an outline of your book, all the way to the sub-chapter level. Work on it until you are pretty happy with it; don’t get bound up in perfectionism. Then write the book, one sub-chapter at a time–and do your best not to fiddle with the structure while you are writing.

Finally, find a decent editor to edit it.

That’s it! Of course, for a tiny investment, you can get the benefit of a bunch of tips and tricks I’ve developed in the course of writing a dozen books and interviewing a bunch of prolific and successful authors. Again, click here to check it out.

Writing tools: Scrivener

ScrivenerMost aspiring (and actual) writers use Word. It’s got a lot of power–and a lot of complexity, much of which is irrelevant to the writer. But it is terrible at organization. It requires you to fall back upon the folder structure of your computer’s operating system.

For some projects, this won’t matter. But if you are writing a book, whether fiction or non-fiction, it does matter. Books have layers of structure that are not always easy to represent within a strict hierarchical file arrangement.

Enter Scrivener. It is a writing environment. If you don’t look too closely at Scrivener, it might appear to be nothing more than yet another word processor. But it is much more than that. It is an environment that preserves all of the pieces of what you’re attempting, in a way that makes sense to you. And when you’re done, you tell it to compile what you’ve done and output it in the format that you need, and it complies.

A lot has been written in praise and explication of this inexpensive ($40 or so) and powerful tool (see here, here, and here, for example). The manual is well-written.

The best way to see if this powerful tool suits you is to download the 30-day free trial from here. Play with it, and you’ll discover why this is not your father’s word processor. Available for both Mac and Windows.

What writers should read

BrainPickings.org“Maria Popova” sounds like a pseudonym, but it isn’t. It is the name of a buzz curator, a zeitgeist surfer, with an astonishing breadth and depth of interest. No matter what you are writing about, you should sign up for the BrainPickings.org newsletter, and at least scan the headlines once a week. Why? Well, we live in a bitstorm, and the stuff is coming at us so fast and thick that there is no way to absorb it unfiltered. And where is a trustworthy filter? I don’t think it’s my Facebook stream, my Twitter feed, or even LinkedIn. G+ is way too cluttered. Where to turn? There is good stuff coming over the interwebs, but it is not clearly labeled. On BrainPickings.org, you can find a lot–more than I can handle, still–and it is clearly labeled. In a book review, Popova explains a bit:

“The present education system is the trampling of the herd,” legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright lamented in 1956. Half a century later, I started Brain Pickings in large part out of frustration and disappointment with my trampling experience of our culturally fetishized “Ivy League education.” I found myself intellectually and creatively unstimulated by the industrialized model of the large lecture hall, the PowerPoint presentations, the standardized tests assessing my rote memorization of facts rather than my ability to transmute that factual knowledge into a pattern-recognition mechanism that connects different disciplines to cultivate wisdom about how the world works and a moral lens on how it shouldwork. So Brain Pickings became the record of my alternative learning, of that cross-disciplinary curiosity that took me from art to psychology to history to science, by way of the myriad pieces of knowledge I discovered — and connected — on my own. I didn’t live up to the entrepreneurial ideal of the college drop-out and begrudgingly graduated “with honors,” but refused to go to my own graduation and decided never to go back to school. Years later, I’ve learned more in the course of writing and researching the thousands of articles to date than in all the years of my formal education combined.

So, in 2012, when I found out that writer Kio Stark was crowdfunding a book that would serve as a manifesto for learning outside formal education, I eagerly chipped in. Now, Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything is out and is everything I could’ve wished for when I was in college, an essential piece of cultural literacy, at once tantalizing and practically grounded assurance that success doesn’t lie at the end of a single highway but is sprinkled along a thousand alternative paths.

Go subscribe. Reading Brain Pickings will improve your writing. Enjoy!

Gabriele Rico, inventor of clustering

Cover of "Writing the Natural Way"

I’m writing an ebook about clustering; it will be out soon, and I’ll post it here. So I thought I’d check on Gabriele Rico, whose “Writing the Natural Way” was my introduction to clustering. I still recommend the book to anyone thinking about writing; it is marvelous. Clustering changed my life–it’s a powerful practice.

Googling her name, I was surprised to find the first entry was an obituary. She passed away in March, after battling cancer for some time. She was 75.

Not only is this book of hers worth reading and keeping for rereading, her blog is full of gentle and joyful writing wisdom. I know you will enjoy it.

I am sad. When I moved here, to Mountain View, CA, in 2006, one of the things I thought was, “Gabriele Rico lives near here, in Cupertino. Perhaps I can meet her.” But I never did.

If there is something you’ve been putting off, maybe it’s time to do it.

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Tom Clancy, 66

Tom Clancy

Tom Clancy

Tom Clancy was 66 when he passed away a couple of days ago. I am 66. I had spent time with him some years ago, when we were both on the board of directors of a software company in North Carolina called Virtus. That company spun out Red Storm Entertainment, named for “Red Storm Rising,” a Clancy best-seller. It published games based on Tom’s books–and later, books by Michael Creighton.

After Tom bought a stake in the Orioles, the board met in his Baltimore place, then went to Camden Yards to watch a game from the owner’s box. I don’t even recall who they were playing, so dazzled I was.

I remember Tom as quiet, thoughtful, a bit withdrawn. Perhaps that was the result of his fame by then.

Good to have known you, Tom. May your family find comfort.

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Social media: How Guy K keeps up

Guy says on LinkedIn: Many people ask me how I manage my social media accounts (and others make stuff up rather than figure out what I do). Here are the gory, inside-story details. Perhaps you may find some of my methods useful to help you get the most out of social media, too. I wrote this article for my friends at Hubspot in May, this is the June 2013 update.


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