Let’s Hear From an Expert: Linda Lowen, Writing Coach
As a writing coach, how do you work with clients? What is your process?
We learn to write in school, but don’t necessarily learn the elements of compelling storytelling. And we frequently write from “headspace,” the voice that centers on I, me, my. Journaling is rooted in headspace—intensely personal, driven by emotion, focused on feelings. Journaling rarely replicates life the way films and TV do–through scene and dialogue–because for the journal writer, there’s no need to describe what just happened. She already knows—she lived it.
Passionately pouring out your thoughts, reactions, and ideas is fine if your goal is personal problem-solving. Journaling is a private endeavor that’s all about connecting to self. Writing is communication—it’s public-facing. Good writing connects to the reader.
When you’re writing for yourself, you don’t need to entertain, delight or surprise. When you’re writing for an audience, it’s about them, not you. If you don’t engage your reader or offer something of interest or value, you’ll lose her. This is true of a blog post, short story, novel, even what you’re reading now—all 175 words thus far.
Many people who say they write do so in isolation. They haven’t taken a class since college, and they don’t share their words in a setting in which they’ll get honest, professional, knowledgeable feedback. They have no idea that as good as they are, they could be so much better—and have a bigger audience.
Sometimes in our writing, we don’t see our ego interfering. Some inexperienced writers inadvertently create obstacles that make it hard for a reader to enter the story, find their own meaning and feel comfortable staying. One of my favorite quotes illustrating this idea comes from Robin Sloan’s bestselling novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: “I realize that the books I love most are like open cities, with all sorts of ways to wander in.”
So, I just took five paragraphs to say that I work with clients who are ready to enter into this process of discovery, who are open to learning and are not secretly hiring me because they expect me to say, “Great job! You’re a great writer and you don’t need anything from me!”
Every writer I know, from first-timers to published authors, can use an attentive editor or writing coach. My best editors—the ones who taught me the discipline of the craft—expected great things because they knew ‘good enough’ wouldn’t do. Everyone writes excessively, and every draft is a chance to cut back. Stephen King’s rule—as he explains in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft—is to remove 10% of the first draft. I’d go further and say you can lose much more. I was once in a workshop with Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex, and The Marriage Plot; I’d heard he wrote extensively and was unafraid to cut much of his work, so I asked him how much. For a novel exceeding 100,000 words, he said he’d discarded up to 70,000 words going through various drafts.
What I do for my clients is simple: I help them see the stories of their lives and identify universal themes that will connect with readers—no matter their age, background, or situation. Good writers provide opportunities for others to enter the story and experience it as their own. Even if you’re writing fiction, truth is based on the realities of human experience.
Tell a story well and you don’t have to say, “I was shocked and hurt by what happened.” That’s headspace, and it doesn’t allow the reader to feel shocked and hurt on your behalf. But if you describe the situation, the events, the sights and sounds, the behavior of others, as a camera—simply recording, not passing judgment about anything, not stating whether you think someone’s bad or good, kind or cruel, just depicting key moments through scene and dialogue—the reader will step into your shoes and experience the moments as you do, because they won’t be told how to feel. The less your opinion is present, the more they can form their own. If you don’t get in your own way, you leave room for your reader to enter and she will be on your side from that moment forward.
The process I teach is simple: together we break down storytelling to examine its components. I help women unlearn habits that get in the way of their best efforts.
There’s a lot of talk about clean eating. Well, writing’s the same way. Clean writing, writing that isn’t artificial or clichéd, writing that’s straightforward and simple, is compelling and engaging. I recommend my students read two books (you’ll get their titles later on): one describes these principles, and the other puts them into practice. When they see what a good simple narrative can do, they understand the process and believe that they too can achieve this kind of storytelling.
I also work with bloggers; I’ve been a successful blogger in the past with a #1 ranked site on Google for the niche I specialized in. And I do business writing, working with clients from established companies like Verizon and Nielsen to small internet startups.
If you blog or write for business, you may feel your ideas are solid yet you’re not getting the response you expected or the social media engagement you’d like. Chances are you’re doing something that’s putting readers off, even though you have expert knowledge and content.
I personally know a handful of women who believe they’re good writers, but they don’t get shares or comments, and I itch to tell them what they’re doing wrong. But just like a client who’s writing her memoir or novel, they have to be in the right place to hear that critique, so I don’t offer it openly—I wait until they come to me. In most cases, it’s nothing major, just a couple of small tweaks and changes in writing style and approach, but it has enormous impact.
If you do this type of writing, be conversational. Couch things in common, everyday terms that people can understand. Here’s an example of something that reflects my approach to blogging and writing online content: Unpack the Basket: 7 Tips to Increase Productivity, Enhance Creativity.
When it comes to women in midlife and beyond, what types of writing do you find they are yearning to do? What are the challenges and opportunities they face in telling their stories?
For the past five years, I’ve taught at the Downtown Writer’s Center in Syracuse, NY, which is affiliated with the local Y. In 1990, YMCA launched a national initiative, The Writer’s Voice, with dozens of programs across the country. Today the Downtown Writer’s Center is among the top three most successful YMCA community-based writing centers in the U.S.
Typically 80% of my students are women midlife and beyond. They tell me they’ve been talking about writing for many years and finally have the time to do it, so that’s why they’re here. But over the course of an 8-week class, a deeper truth comes out: Writing is their way of coming to terms with both the good and the bad of who they are.
Most want to tell a specific story that has shaped their choices and directed or redirected their paths. Sometimes it’s about their own mother. Sometimes it’s a traumatic experience they want to acknowledge and let go of. Sometimes it’s a health crisis they want to share so their stories can help others.
The number one challenge they face in trying to tell their stories is going it alone. When you write in isolation, you don’t get feedback. You don’t have someone else’s input to say what works and what doesn’t, what moves the story forward and what causes it to bog down and become unreadable. You don’t have a nurturing environment to discover your voice, you don’t have peers on the same path as you with whom you can compare notes, and you may expend a lot of effort on work that ultimately won’t serve your story, your intent, or your goals.
Writing is not easy. It’s not fun. It requires discipline, focus, and commitment. The good news is that it’s a skill anyone can develop and improve over time. Anyone. Write a million words and you will be that much better. That’s no joke. You can’t help but be. In my freelance career as a non-fiction writer, I’ve counted my output and can safely say I’ve written three million words. That’s what it takes.
Unfortunately, the fantasy persists that a new writer can do it absolutely right the first time without training. Think about how crazy that is. You wouldn’t hire an attorney who hasn’t attended law school. You wouldn’t let a surgeon operate who hasn’t gone through medical school. There are specific tools and skills and techniques that writers apply to their work to get the results they seek, and yet most wannabe writers who work alone are writing by the seat of their pants. That’s fine if all you want is a record of your thoughts. But if you want to publish, if you want to sell a story or a book, if you want to connect with readers who become passionate fans, you need these tools and the guidance of others to improve your craft.
For me, one of the hardest things is to encounter someone who says, “I wrote a book!” They’re so proud of their efforts, but when they show you the first chapter, it’s clear what’s wrong. You realize there’s a story there but it’s buried under verbal clutter. You’re sidetracked so often it’s a tough read.
For the person who’s willing to listen, to learn the elements of plot and story arc, character motivation and inciting incidents, the rise and fall of action, the necessity of structure, that’s half the battle. They have to be prepared to go back and revise, edit, and cut. When I see a student or client do this without prodding from me, that’s a golden moment. They’ve acquired the tools to reshape their work, and my editing and revising will be that much easier, because they can see what’s wrong themselves and they can fix it.
But for the person who is hurt by well-intentioned critique, who is too tender about her words and just wants approval, it’s not going to happen—their writing is not going to improve.
This is why I started my writing coaching business, Always Wanted to Write (AWTW), because it’s hard to have these critiques happen in a group of 8-12 people—the typical size class in most writing centers and workshops. Often individualized one-on-one instruction and guidance is easier for a vulnerable new writer to accept. I also find that having that familiarity with someone’s work, and the time and space to focus on a single writer and her needs, makes for a better back-and-forth over the long run. We come up with a better product, whether it’s a short essay, a 6,000-word story, or the first draft of a memoir.
AWTW also allows me to work remotely with someone, and I’ve done so with women across the country. Usually, they want me to shape and edit their work to the point at which it’s ready to submit for publication. And I can do this for both fiction and non-fiction/memoir writers.
Although AWTW was created to address clients interested in fiction and memoir, my career has been built on non-fiction work. I specialize in the online environment and publications that feature “service” writing such as self-help, health and wellness, how-to, educational, travel, and vacation, plus I can help with any sort of commercially-focused writing such as copywriting, digital marketing and ad copy, and catalog descriptions as I’ve done that professionally as well. And as a freelance radio producer and host, I write radio scripts every week and have written TV scripts as well. And I’ve ghostwritten book proposals for clients who have found agents and publishers with the material I’ve produced for them. I can teach clients how to write for any of these markets.
Can you give us a few examples of women you’ve helped?
I’ve worked with Ann Voorhees Baker on a book she’s writing about a problem that many of us deal with on a daily basis, one that’s not represented in the current batch of self-help books out there. She’s already an excellent writer, but I helped her shape the storytelling aspects of her book specifically using scene and dialogue.
Nancy is a retired teacher and an avid reader whom I met at a writer’s retreat. She’s been working on three short stories and I just finished editing the first one. It took about four drafts/revisions sent back and forth, and I loved immersing myself in her world and her characters. She takes a traditional approach to storytelling, and hers is part ghost story, part small town narrative similar to Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, and part fairy tale. She had a gorgeous description buried in her first long paragraph, and though I enjoyed it, I saw that it slowed the action down and I suggested she remove it but hold onto it. She eventually revised her ending to include it, and the new version gave me goosebumps. My situation with Nancy is reflective of how I work. I examine the elements of the story and move things around to maintain a strong narrative flow and forward momentum. I’m optimistic that Nancy will publish this in a literary journal in the year ahead. Now we’re moving on to her other two stories.
Maria is a therapist and a college professor who has taken classes with me. She was working on an essay for a public performance when she asked for my input. She had 1200 words and needed it cut. I was able to remove 250 words, suggest modifications that made her storytelling more effective, and she’ll be performing it publicly this spring.
Jo Lynn is a dog breeder and a painter who’s been writing short pieces about the dogs she raises and trains. Her writing is a blend of poetry and prose and is very unique; a couple of previous editors didn’t know how to approach her work because it is so distinct and lyrical. Having once worked as a graphic designer, I understood her intent and was able to preserve her visual storytelling strengths and restructure a few portions to help her achieve greater clarity. I’m doing a final review of her short story collection which she expects to publish later in the year.
In each one of the situations above, the work was done primarily by email. The good thing about working with a writing coach/editor is that you don’t have to be face-to-face to work effectively.
If I have a focus I’m proudest of, it’s helping women tell their cancer survivor stories because I’m one of them. In my hometown of Syracuse, NY, I collaborated with first-time writers to publish a book of these stories. The women were all part of a LiveStrong program at the local YMCA. I led a series of workshops that gave participants basic skills on how to write memoir. I edited the pieces they submitted, and the result is the anthology “Hopeful Grateful Strong: Survivor Stories.”
What is your best advice to women seeking to begin writing?
Enroll in a writing class, or take a one-day workshop—that’s how I got back into fiction writing years ago. Or sign up for a weekend retreat or a week-long conference. Don’t say you’re not good enough—you need to acquire the basic tools so that when you begin to write, you do it with guidance and knowledge of the process.
Whatever you do, don’t go it alone. But be careful of just joining any group at your local library, bookstore, or through Meetup.com. Make sure at least one person in the group has had formal training as a writing instructor or is a working writer or a professional, whether they’re a freelancer or they write for a publication or outlet. I’ve sat in on groups where someone totally untrained but with strong opinions completely discouraged another participant whose writing demonstrated real ability.
We are all tender about our work, and we need a caring, protective environment to share and to learn. Friends and family, well-meaning though they may be, are not the ones to critique your work. Either look for a class locally or regionally or investigate smaller workshops or retreats. In fact, Ann Voorhees Baker offers one through her Women At Woodstock Writer’s Retreat, and I’ll be one of two writers-in-residence for that weekend event in October 2017.
What resources do you recommend for would-be writers?
Here are the titles of the two books I referenced earlier. For a page-turner of a memoir, read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Many people who say they don’t like memoir rave about this book. It’s exceptional storytelling with a straightforward narrative, and it’s totally accessible to any reader. Walls makes no judgments about her family—the outrage the reader feels comes purely from the situations described. That’s the book I recommend for early-stage writers. I actually steer newbie writers away from Mary Karr’s classic, The Liars’ Club, because what she does is close to impossible. She’s an accomplished poet and a skilled literary non-fiction writer, but nobody can do Mary Karr, so holding her up as a model isn’t fruitful. It’s better to start simply, master the basic techniques, and build from there. The Glass Castle will make you believe you’re fully capable of telling your own story—which you are.
Another essential book is William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. This book has been in print for decades, and there’s a reason why. It’s excellent.
If you’re truly committed to writing a memoir, novel, etc., don’t rely on MS Word. It puts a lot of hidden garbage characters into your document that can cause problems when you start submitting—and most places now want you to submit online through an interface called Submittable (though there are others). The best writing program out there is Scrivener, although the learning curve is very steep. It’s not cheap, but once you start playing around with it, you’ll understand why it’s so popular among serious writers.
Contact Linda Lowen at email@example.com
Book: Hopeful Grateful Strong
Video of my writing studio Always Wanted To Write in Syracuse, NY
YouTube video of me performing my essay “Being Japanese” in the local production of Listen To Your Mother – Rochester, NY in May 2016
The weekly NPR radio show I co-host and co-produce
LINDA LOWEN’S BIOGRAPHY
Writer & Editor: A freelance writer for over two decades, Linda Lowen’s work has appeared in print and online. She is the editor of Hopeful, Grateful, Strong, an anthology of cancer survivor stories published in June 2015. Her essay “Hillary Clinton, Everymother,” is featured in the book Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, edited by Joanne Bamberger, an Amazon Hot New Release published in November 2015. In April 2016, Love Her, Love Her Not won a Next Generation Indie Book Award in the Women’s Issues category.
Linda is a theater reviewer for the Syracuse Post-Standard / syracuse.com and also writes the award-winning “Storytime” column for Family Times, the Parenting Guide of Central New York. Her non-fiction story “Christmas Eve Service” is included in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back: 101 Inspiring Stories of Purpose and Passion.
Radio: Linda is co-host/producer of Take Care, an award-winning health and wellness show on WRVO Public Media, an NPR affiliate serving Central and Northern New York. The weekly radio show features the country’s leading experts on medicine, health, psychology and human behavior. The show airs Saturdays at 6:30 am and Sunday at 6:30 pm, can be heard as a podcast through iTunes and is syndicated nationwide through PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
Writing Instructor: She teaches creative non-fiction writing at the Downtown Writer’s Center in Syracuse, NY where her classes run the gamut from memoir to blogging. She also presents workshops on writing and blogging at writing festivals and women’s conferences from the Hobart Book Village Festival of Women Writers to Women at Woodstock.
Internet & New Media: Linda has covered style & beauty, home decor, DIY, tech, internet and social media trends for MSN Living. From 2007-2013 she was editor/writer/content producer for Women’s Issues at About.com, owned by the New York Times Company. Under her guidance, About.com Women’s Issues rose to become the internet’s top ranked site under the search term “women’s issues” on Google, Bing, Yahoo, and every other major search engine. For About she produced over 2400 pieces of original content ranging from politics to pop culture. Her articles and blog posts address a variety of topical and evergreen issues that impact women’s lives.
Broadcast: Her broadcast career includes producing/co-hosting the award-winning women’s issues talk show Women’s Voices, first at Syracuse NPR affiliate WAER-FM (1998-2002), then on Time Warner Cable Channel 13 (2002-2003), and finally at Syracuse PBS affiliate WCNY-TV (2004-2006). She was also co-host of WCNY-TV’s midday talk show Hour CNY (2004-2005) and Director of Communications for the combined PBS television/NPR radio stations serving a 19-county region in upstate New York with a market of over 1.8 million.
Public Speaking: Linda is a member of the Women’s Media Center Progressive Women’s Voices program and the National Cancer Survivor’s Day Speaker’s Bureau; she’s been a keynote speaker at cancer survivor conferences from Hartford, CT to Cooperstown, NY. She was featured in the 2016 Rochester, NY “Listen to Your Mother” cast, a national event giving voice to motherhood with regional performances across the U.S., and her performance of “Being Japanese” is on the Listen To Your Mother YouTube channel.
Media Coaching: Linda’s experience includes a range of print/broadcast/internet platforms as well as media training with top experts at the Women’s Media Center in New York City. She’s worked with individuals who were subsequently featured on the Fox News program “Fox and Friends,” the Huffington Post, the Associated Press, and the UK daily newspaper The Guardian.
National Media Appearances: Linda has been a guest on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” and has been quoted in the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle.