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Grow Your Writing Skills — Part I

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In an effort to grow my copywriting skills, I took Ian Lurie’s LinkedIn Learning course “Learning to Write Marketing Copy.” He broke copywriting down into four easy steps: create a plan, free write, write your first draft, and polish your writing. While the course focused specifically on writing marketing copy, I’ve been able to apply his method to fiction writing, blog writing, and even journalism.

This week, I’d like to focus on the first step.

Create a Plan

Have you ever taken a composition and rhetoric class? My first semester of college, I took English 101, which taught me how to research, outline, and write research papers. Throughout my education, I used that model (research, outline, write) for most of my papers and assignments, big and small.

The first step in any writing project is to research or create a plan. While I used a more structured outline for planning academic papers, I’ve found that bulleted lists do the trick for most copywriting and fiction writing projects.

Know Your Audience

Lurie suggests first jotting down notes about your audience. In my work as a copywriter for Liberty University Marketing, I primarily write to Generation Z high school students. Understanding my audience’s needs is important to every email, postcard, and booklet I write.

If, for example, I’m working on a direct mail advertisement, I start by making a list of things I know are important to Gen Z students:

  • Sustainability
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Fiscal responsibility
  • Hands-on learning opportunities
Photo by Kaboompics from Pexels

And the list goes on. Once I have a list of Gen Z’s priorities, I can brainstorm ways our university can meet those needs. For example, I might write about Liberty’s energy-saving efforts and 40 percent recycling rate to address Gen Z’s interest in sustainability. 

Similarly, if you are writing fiction for children and young adults, it’s important to understand what’s important to them. In a session from Write2Ignite’s 2019 conference, author and presenter Edie Melson said that you need to be reading the current literature on the market. (i.e., If you want to write young adult fiction, you need to read young adult fiction.)

Reading young adult fiction or children’s books gives you an understanding of the types of stories that are popular, but it doesn’t tell you much about your audience. I suggest not only reading popular fiction for your target audience, but also researching your audience so you can understand what is important to them.

Make a List of Collateral Requested by the Client

Collateral is a marketing term used to describe the materials requested by a client for any given project. For example, if I’m working on some projects for College For A Weekend, Liberty’s four-day college visit, I might have 30-40 projects ranging from emails to class schedule booklets to temporary parking passes. However, I believe this step can easily be translated to fiction or even blog writing: make a list of key scenes/ideas.

Some authors write without an outline. They can just sit down and write their stories without any pre-planning. I’ve never been able to write without an outline, even if it’s only a few bullet points. But writing down the key scenes I want to include in my story or the main ideas I want to address in my blog post helps me get from one point to the next without running down a rabbit trail.

Note: An outline is not a binding agreement. You are not obligated to follow your outline once it’s written!

List the Styles that Will and Won’t Work for Your Audience

Now, this idea fascinated me. Until taking Lurie’s class, I didn’t really think about the style of writing I was using in my marketing pieces. But the more I thought about my audience, the more I realized that Gen Z doesn’t like being marketed to. So how am I supposed to market to Gen Z without them knowing they’re being marketed to? (Say that five times fast!) 

Through style.

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Most of my pieces are written in a teaching style. That is, they teach my audience about Liberty and then offer a call to action. (i.e., “Did you know you can receive $10,000 in awards and scholarships over four years just by submitting your refundable $250 Enrollment Deposit? We want to make college attainable for you; that’s why we offer generous scholarship packages and flexible payment plans. Don’t wait — submit your Enrollment Deposit today!”)

In creative writing, you need to choose the correct format for your writing — you need to know the purpose. In her session “Writing for the YA Audience” at the 2019 W2I conference, Melson reminded us that we shouldn’t be writing to tell young adults what to think. We should be writing to connect and entertain and then allow the audience to draw their own conclusions about the story, which may or may not be what we intended. 

While your audience may have different takeaways, you’ve given them a reading experience they are invested in rather than another textbook. It’s up to them to decide what to do with the material.

Tune-in on Dec. 5 for steps two and three, freewriting and writing your first draft!

About Emily

EmilyBabbitt is a promotional writer for Liberty University Marketing and specializes in residential undergraduate enrollment. She has done extensive research on Generation Z and has written for school-aged audiences in her work as a promotional writer and through contract work with Growing Leaders, Inc. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her husband, taking photos, and cooking. You can learn more about her work by visiting her website, EmilyMarlene.com, or connecting with her on LinkedIn.

 

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5 Things Journalism School Taught Me About Writing

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I graduated in May of 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and immediately transitioned into a career in marketing. I’m still learning the ropes of copywriting, but many of the principles I learned in journalism school apply to both copywriting and creative writing. I’d love to share some of those things with you.

Interviewing Strangers

One of the first skills I learned in journalism school was how to conduct interviews. In class, my professor had us practice interviewing each other before she sent us to the nearby computer lab to talk to other students — to strangers.

Approaching unsuspecting, and potentially unwilling, strangers was terrifying at first, but over time, the action became easier. By my sophomore year, I was excited to interview strangers.

I’m glad I learned to talk to people and ask good questions early on in my education because so much of the program was based on that discipline. Without interviewing skills, many of my news stories would have been lackluster because people are the heart of a story.

My senior year, I wrote a news story about Main Street Lynchburg, Va., receiving new water lines and electrical systems — not the most interesting story in the world.

But when I added quotes from a quirky barista known as “Coco” and an elderly camera shop owner who thinks the project is “experimenting with other people’s livelihoods,” the story took on a new dimension. 

Whether you’re writing a newspaper article or a work of fiction, talking to others will breathe life into your story.

Simplicity is the Key to Good Writing

Most news is written at an eighth-grade reading level. Journalists intentionally write at a lower reading level so news can be accessible to readers. When writing, journalists use simple sentences and words to get their points across. 

Similarly, in copywriting, we use plain English. When writing to a diverse audience, it is best to write plainly and simply because your readers may have different levels of education. (Am I the only one who read magazine ads as a kid?)

While fiction writers have a more specific audience, I still believe simple writing is the best writing because it doesn’t distract the reader from the story.

Transitions are Hard

Copies of the Liberty Champion displayed on my dorm room wall circa 2017

Both transitions in writing and transitions in life are difficult. 

Traditionally, journalists had to write as simple and short as possible to fit their stories into just a few column inches of the paper. That doesn’t matter as much now with the internet being the primary vehicle for news, but there still isn’t much room for transitions in journalistic writing. 

Academic writing is different than journalistic writing. It’s fluffier and lengthier and more formulaic. Every paragraph is supposed to be bookended with an introduction and a conclusion, and every section is bookended with introductory and conclusive paragraphs. And on it goes. 

Journalistic writing doesn’t have the time for paragraphs dedicated solely to transitioning from one thought to the next, so I learned snappy words to transition quickly from one subject to the next without giving my readers whiplash.

Similarly, I learned that transitions in life are difficult. (See how I used the word “similarly” to transition my thoughts?) 

Transitioning from being a high school student with an interest in creative writing to a journalism student dedicated to fact-based writing was difficult. At first, I felt like my creativity was being stifled because of the blandness of journalism compared to the freedom of creative writing.

But as my education progressed, the blandness transformed into a challenge, and I learned to write true stories creatively.

Again, I’m going through a transition from a journalism student to a copywriting professional. My creativity often runs dry because the copy I write is predetermined by my clients. I don’t get to choose my projects or conduct the research myself — it’s all provided. 

Yet I’m learning to incorporate creativity into direct mail pieces and monthly offer emails. And I’m beginning to realize that creativity is not unrestrained. It’s a tool I can apply to everything I write, whether it is client-provided content or a short story from my heart.

Writing is Easy. Editing is Hard.

I never had a hard time sitting down to write my first draft. After completing my research, transcribing my interviews, and framing an outline, the first draft flowed onto the page in a few minutes. 

Going back and editing is the hard part. Now, I don’t mean checking for grammatical errors. I mean cutting out unnecessary words and sentences, rearranging the flow of the story, and sometimes going back to the drawing board.

Usually, my first drafts ran long — around 1,200 words. At my college newspaper, we had a limit of 750 words per article so everything would fit into our 16-page paper. 

That meant I had to cut out about 450 words every week. That’s a big chunk of text (and work)!

The hard part of editing my own writing is admitting to myself that the first draft isn’t perfect. Over time I learned that a first draft isn’t supposed to be perfect!

Once I accept that my writing isn’t perfect the first time around, I can usually effectively cut out a few hundred words. Before submitting my work, I wait a day and reread the piece with “fresh eyes.”

Don’t Waste your Mistakes

You’re going to make mistakes at some point in your writing career, and that’s okay. Whether it’s misspelling a name or overlooking a grammatical error, know that you can learn from your mistakes.

During my time with the school’s newspaper, I made my fair share of mistakes. So I kept a document of my common mistakes on my computer. That way, I could refer back to it when writing my stories. 

I also worked as a copy editor for the school’s newspaper for two years, and during that time, I made some embarrassing mistakes (like overlooking a misspelling on the front page). Making a checklist of things to look for when reviewing your work (or others’ work) is a great way to cut down on mistakes and improve your writing and editing skills.

What have you learned on your writing journey? I’d love to hear about the lessons you’ve learned in the comments below!

 

About Emily

Photo by Jim Smith

EmilyBabbitt is a promotional writer for Liberty University Marketing and specializes in residential undergraduate enrollment. She has done extensive research on Generation Z and has written for school-aged audiences in her work as a promotional writer and through contract work with Growing Leaders, Inc. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her husband, taking photos, and cooking. You can learn more about her work by visiting her website, EmilyMarlene.com, or connecting with her on LinkedIn.

 

Emily will be blogging for Write2Ignite on the first Thursday of every month. Her next post will be published on Nov. 7.

 

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COMBAT!

Do you have an idea for a nonfiction book but you’re not sure what goes into finding the right publisher and writing the proposal? In this post, Dennis Peterson, a W2I 2018 attendee, shares the backstory for his forthcoming book, COMBAT! Lessons on Spiritual Warfare from Military History

 

CAROL: Please tell us about COMBAT! that recently went under contract with TouchPoint Press. What is the backstory behind writing it? What was your inspiration?

DENNIS: I’m a history buff with a special interest in military history and a student of the Bible. Those two interests merged as I saw parallels between the Christian’s daily struggles and military history. I thought that held possibilities for a book.

But I wanted my book to go beyond the typical treatment of Ephesians 6:10–18; there’s so much more to spiritual warfare. My book discusses parallels of chain of command and control, communications, logistics, weaponry, strategy, and tactics. It surveys the major military engagements of Israel’s history and modern warfare.

CAROL: That sounds fascinating! What qualifications prepared you to write this book?

DENNIS: I’m a Christian, study God’s Word, taught history for nineteen years, and have been published widely.

CAROL: What did you include in your proposal to TouchPoint?

DENNIS: The proposal included a synopsis, a statement showing my book’s uniqueness, my credentials, a market analysis, an annotated table of contents, a statement concerning documentation, a blurb about my artist, and three sample chapters. I sent out five initial queries simultaneously, but I sent a complete proposal package only to the publishers who requested one.

I researched various publishers to identify those that were most likely to publish material like mine. After several rejections from other publishers, TouchPoint requested a full proposal and later the complete manuscript.

CAROL: What attracted you to TouchPoint?

DENNIS: I liked the fact that they refused to consider manuscripts that contained what both of us consider “objectionable elements.” Only a short time earlier they had entered the Christian marketplace, and I figured that they might be “hungry” for new writers with a Christian message. They said that they published history and military as well as Christian living, and my book combines all of those topics. They are small, and I figure that they will have more time and motivation to promote my book than a large or mid-sized publisher would. I had studied their web site and the books they’ve already published, and I liked what I saw.

CAROL: Was the manuscript complete when you queried?

DENNIS: I had essentially finished writing the manuscript before I submitted it. I knew that if publishers were interested they would request sample chapters. Not knowing which chapters they might request, I decided to write the whole thing before submitting.

CAROL: What is next in the publishing process? Do you expect it will be edited?

DENNIS: I’m proofing the manuscript, writing captions for the illustrations and photos, and waiting for the artist to finalize his illustrations. Then I’ll scan and send them plus the completed manuscript to the publisher. I don’t know the level of edit the book will receive. I always aspire to write so well that the editor has an easy time of it.

CAROL: Can you tell us about some of the illustrations? Is the illustrator also doing the cover art?

DENNIS: The illustrator I hired is creating nine watercolor illustrations of such things as military vehicles, armor, weapons, and other equipment, both ancient and modern. I also plan to include several photographs of historical military subjects.

The illustrator will not be doing the cover art; the publisher will do that. They asked for my input–what I did and did not want the cover to show–and requested any photo possibilities. I did a mockup cover to show what I envisioned. Not sure if they’ll use it, adapt it, or come up with something entirely different.

CAROL: Can you give us an example of one of your lessons?

DENNIS: Although I can’t provide the actual text, one of the lessons in my book deals with logistics, or the supplying of troops with food and equipment. In the Christian life, the individual “soldier” must eat properly and regularly on spiritual food. That includes the encouragement of communion, fellowship, and prayer with others.

CAROL: Do you have a pub date?

DENNIS: I’m not yet sure of the publication date. The publisher says “within 18 months of acceptance.” My experience with my first book indicates it might be sooner than that. The publisher’s editor is scheduled to begin work on my manuscript the first week of August and has scheduled two weeks. I suspect she has a built-in buffer and am hoping that she will get through it faster than that. I’m hoping that the entire production process will be completed by November or earlier. But who knows?

CAROL: How did your conference experience at Write2Ignite in 2018 help you move forward in your writing career?

DENNIS: The most important thing the Write2Ignite conference did for me was to motivate me to take a chance and submit my work. I struggle with the fear of failure. No one likes to be rejected! The conference sessions inspired me to submit despite those fears and to leave the results with God.

CAROL: We all struggle with that! Thanks for this interview, Dennis, and best wishes on your forthcoming book. I think it will be one that will inform and inspire adults and teens.

***********

If you have questions about how to write a nonfiction proposal, leave them here and Dennis will do his best to answer them. Look for a review of COMBAT! next year.

 

Dennis L. Peterson is an independent author and historian and a former editor and educator. His first book was Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries (McFarland, 2016), and he has had articles on historical, educational, and religious topics published in many journals and magazines, including The Writer, Blue Ridge Country, True West, Smoky Mountain Living, and Nature Friend. Find out more about Dennis’s books and the writing process on his blog.