Readers don’t give a shit about you – unless you show them how YOU are like THEM

Stephen Elliott, a ridiculously talented author who I admire greatly (adore), was interviewed recently by The Believer Logger. The piece is titled “The Reader Does Not Give A Shit About You.”

It got me thinking.

Yes, yes yes yes yes. He is dead on.

Readers don’t care if we writers live or die. But that can be confusing.

Great writers share parts of themselves to connect to their readers. That’s the stuff that gets people personally invested in our characters, in our novels. So how do we reach out to people who don’t care about us?

Well, why do you read?

To be entertained. To learn. To help yourself. To see you’re not alone.

Readers don’t give a shit about you – unless you show them how YOU are like THEM.

Our commonalities draw us together.

Any time you make your reader nod her head in agreement – Yes, I’ve been there. Or, Oh, good. It’s not just me. – you connect in a way that’s lasting. It will stay with the reader long after she’s finished your book.

We love The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter because huge parts of us identify with an underdog. We know what it’s like to try to do the right thing, despite magnificently terrifying odds.

Anna Karenina is a classic because people know, with intimate precision, how it feels to want something or someone so badly, we’d give up everything in exchange.

Mind you, it’s not just plot that makes these books timeless. It’s damn good writing. Writing that sucks us inside the walls of the wizarding world or brings to life high society in 1870s Russian.


Writers need to learn the kinds of details that effectively “show” readers instead of telling. The stuff that helps them see the wisp of blond hair curling toward her chin when her gaze falls to the ground. Feel the chill of a morbidly gray morning in November while hunting pheasant. Or suffer the metallic taste of irony when she first learns her lover is cheating with her sister.

It’s our job as writers to give readers a reason to care about our characters and what happens to them. Here are a handful of details that help a writer “show.”

  • Character details (moving, thinking, feeling, talking), moment by moment description of action, get inside your characters’ heads, inner thoughts, opposing perspectives.
  • Setting details (smell, touch, taste, hear, see), create a living, breathing picture.
  • Important object details (color, size, texture, temperature), compare objects to something everyone is familiar with.
  • Non-narrative details (quotes, statistics, facts, anecdotes, definitions).

Books have an advantage over movies and TV because they let readers inside characters’ heads. Beginning writers often forget this. But it’s critical to reveal characters’ inner thoughts and feelings. To show different perspectives by getting inside the minds of people from different times, places and backgrounds. Good writers will also reveal characters’ personalities, thoughts and feelings through dialogue.

Slowing down and adding details is the difference between editorializing and writing rich.

whatsyourstoryA crude example: Walk into a class of third-graders and write on the board, “I have a dog.” Then tell the students to draw a picture of a dog. Each picture would be completely different. And vastly different from the dog you imagine in your head. The solution lies in the details.

Example number two: “Yesterday, my husband brought me home some cookies. They tasted good.” Forget that these sentences are boring and poorly constructed. Just think about what you would ask in order to learn more. Why did he bring me cookies? What kind were they? Did they have frosting? Did he make them? Did I share?

Once writers know how to ask the right questions, they become more adept at deleting the irrelevant to make way for what is more specific and concrete.

• • •

Details help to create a picture in the mind of a reader. But how you go about adding them can make a huge difference – the difference between smelling the chlorine by the pool and feeling your head submerge in the icy water.

  • Use descriptions of others to reveal something about the main character. “His thick black hair reminded me of my own, when I was pregnant with my oldest. Back before the cancer treatment left me with a threadbare scalp.”
  • Bring description at unexpected moments. “The sky was metallic and grainy that night, as though sheaths of rain could come down any second. As she reached for the shutters, I could see where years of self-cutting scarred her forearms like some sort of bold tattoo.”
  • Show details during conversation. “I left him,” she said, crossing her thin arms defiantly, wrinkling the fine lace and white satin of her wedding gown. “Don’t try to talk me into going back.”
  • Add a bit of character detail when describing something important. “She had a nasty habit of biting her full, pink lips when she was uncertain, which happened frequently when he was around. He noticed – and he liked it.”
  • Add detail while another character’s action is being described. “She watched him moving to the dance floor with envy. He was so graceful on his feet, while she tripped merely walking across the ballroom in her stilettos.”

How do you add detail to your work?

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The evil secret to all writing: editing is everything

by Guy Bergstrom

Editing is everything.

I don’t care who you are – you need an editor. And you always will.

In fact, the more successful you are as a writer, the more editing you’ll need.

Here’s why:

1) The time crunch.

You’ll never have as much time as you did when you were struggling to break in.

A journalism student can get away with writing and polishing a major story for weeks or months.

Once you get a job as a reporter at The Willapa Valley Shopper, the first step on your path to The New York Times, you’ve got to crank out two stories a day, every day.

I used to write three or four stories before 10 a.m. every deadline day. You get used to it. But it’s a shock at first. The time crunch is real. Which leads to problem No. 2.

The time crunch will crush your little writing soul unless you man up, or woman up, and fight back with all your writerly might.

2) The sophomore slump.

Think about famous debut novelists who had a tremendous first book, and when you hopped inside your automobile and raced to Borders – back when Borders existed, and sold these things we called “books” – to buy their second novel the day of its release, it made you weep like a Charlie Sheen who’s run fresh out of tequila and tiger blood because that second book SUCKED LIKE ELECTROLUX.

Why is this so?

Because debut novelists spend years polishing that first novel until it shines like a diamond made of words.

And when a debut novelist finally makes it, and has a three-book contract with Random House to crank out two more books in 16 months or whatever, it’s a struggle. They weren’t used to writing that good that fast.

Strong with the Force, the sophomore slump is. A powerful enemy it will be.

3) Editing is for little people.

Some people who write for a living – and didn’t spend time at newspapers or magazines getting edited every day – sometimes get such a big head that they have to turn sidewise to fit through the door. Their words are perfect and never need any editing. Or they are richer than God and simply don’t care.

And even great writers sometimes just write long. They’re in a rush. They have to crank out the product and move on to the next thing.

Stephen King, who I adore, writes beautiful little short stories and novellas while cranking out novels that clock in at 800 or 1,000 pages.

I could close my eyes, reach onto my bookshelf in my secret lair and grab five King novels that weigh more than most second-graders, literary fatties with a slim novel lurking inside, just waiting to burst out.

Even literary snobs now admit that King’s  novels — even the fatties — are good. But you could chop 400 or 500 pages from any of his monstrously overlong novels and make them even better.

Think about J.K. Rowling, and how with every paycheck and movie deal, the next book in the Harry Potter series doubled in size, until Boeing had to invent a new freight version of the 747 just to deliver the last novel so we could find out why Hermione winds up with What’s-His-Face, the redheaded doofus sidekick, instead of Harry, her true love. Also, something about Ralph (it’s pronounced “Rafe,” you fool!) Fiennes killing Alan Rickman despite the fact they’re both British and Harry Potter killing Ralph Fiennes by the power of his magic wand or whatever.

Get the right editor

Most people get the wrong kind of editor.

You don’t need an editor for nancypants nonsense like dangling modifiers and misplaced commas. That’s a proofreader, not an editor. Any semi-literate fool can proofread a document. Microsoft Word can take a whack at that.

The editor you need is (a) a professional who (b) edits or writes for a living in (c) the specific type of writing you want to do FOR MONIES.

Any old professional will NOT do

A roomful of reporters and editors at a newspaper is a good example. They all write and edit for a living, and 99 percent of them want to write the Great American Novel – but 99 percent of the time, they fail.

Because it’s not their specialty.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Writing short non-fiction newspaper stories is far, far different than writing 400-page novels. The structure reporters use for news stories – the inverted pyramid – is exactly backwards for fiction.

Now, there are exceptions. Opinion page editors and columnists could make the transition to speechwriters, and vice-versa. The structures and techniques for persuasion on the page are quite similar to the ones used in speech and rhetoric.

But if you want to make a switch, the fact that you already write for monies doesn’t guarantee anything.

It’s like professional sports. The fact that you play shooting guard for the Bulls doesn’t mean can play left field for the White Sox.

That’s exactly what Michael Jordan tried to do. This is the greatest basketball player of all time. He’d won enough NBA championships. He’d climbed every basketball mountain. He was one of the best athletes on the planet.

So when he decided to try playing major league baseball, it wasn’t a silly dream.

And he did it right. He didn’t try to muscle his way onto the White Sox starting lineup by having lunch with the owner. He trained with baseball coaches and played for the minor league Birmingham Barons, batting .202 with 3 home runs, 51 runs-batted-in and 30 stolen bases.

Batting .202 isn’t good enough. Jordan went back to basketball.

When you try to cross-over, you’ve got to be just as careful and serious and hard-working as if you’re trying to break in for the first time.

Your editor needs to do it for monies

If you really want to write for monies, and pay the mortgage doing it, you’ve got to go all in with an editor who wields their red pen for monies, too.

Not your husband or wife or best friend. Not a coworker. Not a friend who also writes something sort of close to what you’re doing, even if they write for monies. You need somebody who edits for cash.

It’s an achy-breaky big mistakey to use a non-pro as your editor. Friends and family may be great readers of books but horrible at editing. Either way, you’ll take what they say far too personally.

Dreams will be crushed. Friendships will fray. Marriages will sour. DO NOT DO THIS.

Even if you’re friends with somebody who writes for a living, and they say, sure, they’ll edit you as a favor, that might be okay for one small piece. A short story. Your first shot at a stump speech.

But not anything of length, and not as a habit. (And yes, beta reading is a different animal.) When you start cashing checks for what you write, stop being a freeloader. Set your friend free. Better yet, don’t lean on the friend too much in the first place. Because they’re your friend. They won’t tell you when you truly stink up the joint.

Get an editor in your specific field

It’d be silly to use a professional  editor who’s in a different specialty.

They won’t know the conventions and quirks of another type of writing. They’ll make you feel confident that your text is perfect when it has some formatting flaw or deadly structural boo-boo that neither one of you spotted, because neither one of you do this for a living. A professional editor in that field or genre would spot those mistakes.

Find an editor who does exactly what you want to do, whether that’s writing novels, newspaper stories, magazine features, non-fiction books or speechwriting for the politicians.

Now, the natural response to this is, “Professional editors cost money, and I am a poor, starving writer with six kids who lives in a cardboard shack and feeds my family Top Ramen, raw, like popcorn, because we can’t afford a pot to boil the stuff in, so there’s no way I can pay some fancy editor to bleed on my words, words that I carefully put on this paper towel in my own blood because Bic pens and Underwood typewriters and Toshiba laptops are out of my budget, unless I spend my every weekend robbing the local 7-Eleven, which for some reason hates AP style and won’t go with Seven-11.”

To this I say: suck it up.

Professional editors don’t cost THAT much. Scrape together $100 or $200 to have a pro look at the first chunk of whatever you’re writing, and if that works out, pony up the rest to get the whole thing edited.

If you were trying to cut hair for a living, it’d cost you more than a couple hundred bucks to get a license. The hotel bill for a writing conference cost more than your first date with a professional editor.

A great editor is priceless.

Think about how long it takes a human being to write and rewrite and rewrite a novel and synopsis and query letter. Hundreds of hours. Bazillions. Think about paying yourself minimum wage for those hours. Then close your eyes and imagine there’s a glowing mystical being who, for the price of the complete first and second seasons of Jersey Shore on DVD, could save yourself hundreds of more hours of pain while making you (a) seem incredibly brilliant and (b) have ten times the shot of not only getting the damn thing published, but making decent money at it.

Is that worth some money to you?

Cowboy up. If you really want to write for a living, and not toy with it as a hobby, find yourself the most impressively badass editor possible. And pay them in something other than thank yous and cups of coffee.


Guy Bergstrom won awards as a journalist before working as a speechwriter and cashing checks from The New York Times as’s expert on public relations. He wrote a thriller (FREEDOM, ALASKA) that won some award and he’s represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.


Twitter: @speechwriterguy