A Teacher, a Poet, and a Murder Suspect Raise the Bar
As an educator in the 21st century, blogging was a wonderful tool for me. I had an easy way to post short bits of information that could help a variety of people. By early 2017, I had written a textbook. And in just a few months my second non-fiction book will hit the shelves of university bookstores across the U.S. It seems I’ve found a writing groove, but some might be surprised where it came from. As much as I have learned from listening to my editors, completing writing courses, and being a voracious reader, one influence still stands out at as a unique contribution to my success. I’ve learned how to be a better non-fiction writer by spending time with artists who write in other genres.
Poetry in Terrifying Motion
Desperate to experience a writer’s retreat, I searched the internet for a getaway to an international destination. A wonderful opportunity to write in Spain fit my timeline and budget, but I was suspicious of the description. It seemed to be geared towards poets–and a poet I am not. After a few phone calls, I was assured it was a great opportunity for writers of every genre. And let’s be honest, it was a trip to Spain, so I had pretty much already decided I was going.
When I arrived, I learned I was one of three non-poets in a group of about 20 writers. Our schedule consisted of lecture, discussions, and time to write. And we’d all have multiple opportunities to read what we had written for the group. I assure you, not even the most artful haiku could express the level of my anxiety on the first day of our retreat.
I had never done a reading like my poet and fiction-writing friends had done. Textbook writers don’t really attract crowds in coffee shops with our well-organized glossaries and logical delivery of information. We get plenty of feedback and spend a great deal of time fact-checking, but readings, though not unheard of, are a far less common way of developing your work. This was the most daunting piece of the schedule for me, and I felt compelled to be more interesting than I normally am if I was going to read to a room full of poets.
But as I listened to the other writers and considered what I’d share with them, I could feel how intensely they wanted others to be interested in their work and their message. My anxiety faded. Their word choice was artful and intentional. It seemed not a line, word, or letter was taken for granted. What I was learning was beneficial, but it was also soothing as I became more comfortable in this new environment.
Writing blogs, textbooks, and case studies, I write first for clarity. The majority of the time, the reader and I have a shared goal: information delivery. As I sat enveloped by the fluidity of the words of the poets, I realized their goal was the same as mine. We were both seeking to reach our reader in a meaningful way.
Poets work diligently to find the perfect word, and I’ve learned to pay more attention to my word choice–no longer shying away from creative language. They write and rewrite the same lines, changing a word only to change it back again two revisions later. I stopped seeing edits as fixing what I didn’t get right the first time, and rather an opportunity to reach my readers in an even better way than I had originally imagined. And, most importantly, it dawned on me that just because my goal was to educate, didn’t mean the work I was creating shouldn’t be treated as art.
As I continued to share pieces throughout the week, I was emboldened by the poets’ feedback and support. My educational materials morphed into
honest information from a caring teacher.
In the Library with the Candlestick
After I returned from Spain, I continued to write and I kept on looking for opportunities to learn new techniques. I attended a conference for writers of every experience level and genre. There was a vast array of sessions available and, surprising many, I chose to spend time with fiction writers for almost the entire day. I had a few people ask if I was writing a new piece and few others who asked if I was in the wrong room. But I had chosen to spend time with fiction writers to see if–like hanging out with poets–a different part of my non-fiction would flourish. Spoiler alert: It worked again.
A good portion of the way into my non-fiction book, I looked back and realized I had interviewed wonderful people who helped me solidify all the concepts discussed throughout the book. They shared their personalized best practices. I heard funny anecdotes. Some shared how lifelong struggles had shaped their lives. I collected all of this and yet it wasn’t until I was in a room of fiction writers that I realized I
didn’t tell a single story in my book.
I returned to the textbook I was writing and layered in stories–some fictional, some true, and some an artful combination–that illustrated some of the more challenging points in the text. The readers now had the opportunity to see the concepts I had explained play out in real life. I realized that learning from fiction writers had taught me that the same rule that applies to teaching applies to writing: People are more likely to remember someone’s story than an idea.
The Journey Continues
There are so many writing styles, genres, and even delivery methods. Who knows what I could learn from a ghost writer, a romance novelist, or a sports reporter?
When I shared this story with a friend of mine, I told her some of the things I’ve learned as a non-fiction writer. There’s power in brevity. Commit to accuracy because people may believe you, even if you’re wrong (and you don’t want fake news on your conscience). And truth can be stranger than fiction– or at least as interesting, if it
’s written well.
Dr. Amy Jauman is an international speaker, author, and Chief Learning Officer for the National Institute for Social Media. She is the author of NISM’s core textbook, the Comprehensive Field Guide for Social Media Strategists and is publishing her second book, Certification Success through Kendall Hunt Publishing in March of 2018.