Feeling Writers: People Who Need People

Statue of mother reading to childWriters who prefer feeling focus on human connections. Often motivated to write by their deeply held beliefs, they speak from the heart. But without facts to support their position, they may fail to persuade an audience. What can feeling writers do to ensure objectivity and frame an effective argument?

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of following your natural tendencies when writing a first draft. Then, during the editing process, you can go back and fill in the elements you missed.

Natural tendencies of feeling writers

People who prefer feeling judgment value harmony in relationships. Generally tactful in their communication, they are empathetic to the concerns of others.

Feeling types consult their emotions when making decisions, yet they use feeling rationally. Rather than being blinded by emotion, they tend to make better decisions when taking personal needs into account.

People who prefer feeling are enthusiastic in their approach to new ideas. They tend to trust other people’s opinions, looking for points of agreement before considering potential weaknesses. When interacting with others, they may keep negative observations to themselves (and may think that you should, too).

Feeling types are drawn to writing by a desire to motivate others. They organize their material through a sense of flow. Topics may not be clearly defined, but instead transition naturally from one to the next. Their work tends to read more like a narrative than a report. They may use anecdotes to illustrate their point, and consider personal stories a part of audience analysis.

Feeling writers invest themselves personally in their material. They want to make the world a better place. In technical writing, this may mean helping a reader complete a task efficiently. They are passionate about user experience, focusing on expression and audience reaction.

As they mature, feeling writers may build on their personal values to convey factual or technical information. They learn to remove themselves from their writing, even though they’re likely to feel deeply connected to it.

Filling the gaps

Feeling types can have trouble expressing themselves objectively until they write down their subjective reactions first. If you’re a feeling writer, it might help to free-write your gut reactions to the subject, even if you can’t use any of the material, to cleanse your palate before the real writing begins.

Don’t over-focus on expression. Avoid wordsmithing during the first draft, since material may get cut or changed later. Make sure the organization is clear and coherent—that topics flow logically without jumping around. Research the material and gather data to support your beliefs. Be open to changing your mind if the facts surprise you.

In technical communication, remember that content is more important than expression. Be direct. Don’t soften your statements. Use the imperative. Make sure you understand the material so you can explain it accurately. Edit the material to be concise—this saves money on printed documents and on translation, and it makes it more likely that customers will read the manual. Don’t offer multiple ways to do a task—choose the clearest one, then offer shortcuts in an appendix.

If you’re feeling blocked, list your personal values and brainstorm how the topic connects to them. When editing other people’s work, think of it as expressing an opinion. You’re offering suggestions and asking for clarity. It’s okay to be tactful but honest. You’re a mentor, not a critic.

Thinking Writers: Logical Conclusions

thinking writerWriters who prefer thinking focus on logic and clarity. They tend to excel at analysis and the step-by-step progression of events. But if they don’t consider the needs of their audience, they may fail to engage readers. How can thinking writers create an emotional connection?

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of following your natural tendencies when writing a first draft. Then, during the editing process, you can go back and fill in the elements you missed.

Natural tendencies of thinking writers

Thinking writers value clarity in communication. They tend to be honest and straightforward in how they express themselves. When addressing their subject matter, they use logic and impersonal evaluation. This emotional detachment encourages objectivity.

Writers who prefer thinking don’t trust judgments based on personal considerations. When evaluating their source material, they tend to be skeptical and to look for flaws before they look for strengths. A focus on facts helps them approach their subject dispassionately.

Thinking types are motivated to write by a desire to convey information clearly. Using critical analysis, they tend to be good at explaining how things work, and doing so in a logical and efficient way. Thinking writers methodically follow a set of criteria and organize their material through a logical unfolding of ideas. They generally advocate for one approach over another.

As they mature, thinking writers come to better understand the importance of connecting with their readers if they want to hold the audience’s interest. It’s possible to maintain control over the subject matter yet still add elements that appeal to readers on an emotional level.

Filling the gaps

If you’re a thinking writer, consider the needs and desires of the audience. Use the simplest word that will do the job. Big words are more difficult to read—even if the audience understands what they mean. Don’t use a vocabulary that’s more precise than the audience needs it to be. Otherwise, you’ll fog the reader’s mind with minutiae.

Provide sufficient background material. Explain why the topic is relevant. If you’re a technical communicator, avoid writing procedures based on what the product can do—instead, write based on reader tasks. Develop personas and user profiles. Write in second person to increase reader involvement. Unless writing for experts, assume the reader knows nothing about the subject.

When offering alternatives or conducting analysis, present the positives before the negatives to avoid alienating the reader. To increase interest, use visuals like flowcharts or graphs. Include transitions between topics. In the final draft, be concise but not terse.

To overcome writer’s block, establish an organizational structure (such as problem–solution) to develop your ideas logically. If you’re stressed because you don’t think your writing situation will reward you fairly, plan to reward yourself after you complete the project. A sense of fair play is important to thinking types. It’s okay to indulge yourself with your favorite gadget to celebrate a job well done.

Intuitive Writers: What a Concept!

Writers who prefer intuition focus on theories, patterns, and connections. They start with the big picture, then zoom in on the details. But too much attention to possibilities can prevent them from providing enough facts to support their ideas. How can intuitive writers make sure they ground their writing in reality?

In an earlier post, I wrote about the importance of following your natural tendencies when writing a first draft. Then, during the editing process, you can go back and fill in the elements you missed.

Natural tendencies of intuitive writers

Intuitive writers come to understand the world by letting their unconscious mind discover patterns and connections between ideas. They value insights into the implications of the facts more than they do the facts themselves. With their abstract perspective, they enjoy theories, complexity, and creating an overall vision.

Intuitive writers are imaginative. They see the world not as it is but as it could be. They rely on inspiration and focus on context. When planning a writing project, they think about the subject, jotting down ideas as they arise and considering a multitude of possibilities.

In a business or educational environment, intuitive writers want general directions. They expect a lot of freedom in developing a writing project. Seeking to innovate, they want to explore different options for implementing the requirements of the project. They don’t derive much satisfaction from repeating what’s been done before.

As they mature, intuitive writers become less focused on creativity and more focused on communication. They simplify their concepts to better connect with the reader. They become more careful about including facts. This makes their writing more accessible.

Filling the gaps

If you’re an intuitive writer, you may tend to think in generalities. This makes it difficult to connect with readers. Be specific. Include relevant facts and details. Say what you mean rather than simply implying it. Don’t make intuitive leaps without connecting the dots for your readers. Check with a peer to make sure you’ve shown connections clearly.

In technical or business writing, don’t forge your own path. Follow templates and reuse information where possible. Don’t wordsmith text that’s already been edited, approved, and translated unless it’s ambiguous or unclear. Follow the plan developed by the team, or else consult them before deviating from it. Remember, other team members may know things you don’t. Indulge your desire for innovation in a way that respects the boundaries set by the organization

If you’re feeling blocked, don’t let rote tasks drain your energy and creativity. Use templates for mundane or repetitive tasks. For creative writers, this might mean following a three-act structure. Not only does the three-act structure tell you what you need to include, it keeps you from going off on irrelevant tangents. Rather than wasting time on a whim, you’ll put your abundant imagination to good use.

Sensing Writers: Down to the Details

Writers who prefer sensation focus on concrete data. They start with the detail, then pan out until they can see the big picture. But too much focus on discrete data can prevent them from perceiving the connections between ideas. How can sensing writers make sure they include conceptual as well as factual information?

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of following your natural tendencies when writing a first draft. Then, during the editing process, you can go back and fill in the elements you missed.

Natural tendencies of sensing writers

Sensing writers immerse themselves in the five senses. They see the world as it is. Relying on facts, they enjoy storing knowledge about their observations and including this information in their writing.

When sensing writers begin a writing project, they want clear instructions. They need details to develop a sense of direction. Often, they’ll use other projects that have gone well as a template.

Sensing writers organize their content around concrete elements. They’re more interested in action than in ideas. They focus on practical applications and find it easier to write based on personal experience. They tend to move in a linear way from start to finish.

As they mature, sensing writers learn through experience to brainstorm and conceptualize. They become more imaginative and original. However, they trust imagination most when it has boundaries—for instance, a writing structure to follow.

Filling the gaps

If you’re a sensing writer, be sure to get detailed instructions at the beginning of a project. If you don’t understand what’s expected of you, talk to your editor or project sponsor. Ask a peer for help.

Use other projects as a model, but also consider new approaches. While sensing types learn best through repetition, sometimes the benefits of innovation are worth the learning curve of trying new things. Be open to improvement.

Compose a rough first draft to give yourself something concrete to work with—but avoid polishing too soon. When presenting facts, look for connections between them. Transition clearly from one topic to another. Relate details to the big picture to give a sense of context.

For instance, in technical writing, tell the reader why to perform a procedure. Instead of Press the red button to launch the missile, write To launch the missile, press the red button.

To overcome writer’s block, break the rules. Writing is an art, not a mechanical procedure. Don’t be constrained by preconceived ideas. Try something new and see what happens.

Finding Your Voice in Fiction

Copywriters blog about it. Literary agents yearn for it. Budding writers may know they need it, but they may be unsure how to get it (or even what it is). In a sense, voice is your platform. It’s the reason that you alone could write this story—that no one else could write it the way you did.

Many things contribute to an author’s voice. Word choice and sentence structure are part of it. But voice is also much deeper. It’s your world view, your values, your passion. In short, it’s your personality.

The websites of literary agents make it clear that they’re looking for a unique and compelling voice. If your manuscript sounds like every other submission in your genre, then no matter how well written it is, the agent will likely pass. Your personality must shine through.

Here are some of the components of voice:

Your values

David Keirsey grouped the 16 Myers-Briggs types into 4 temperaments, and identified the values unique to each. For example, the Idealists (NFs) and Guardians (SJs) value cooperation, while Rationals (NTs) and Artisans (SPs) value autonomy. But while the cooperative efforts of Guardians focus on preserving traditions and social institutions, Idealists seek to build stronger communities through personal growth. And while Artisans want autonomy so they can take advantage of immediate opportunities, Rationals focus on building systems and long-term strategies.

Think about some of your favorite novels, and consider how the voice might reflect one or more of these values. For example, I might argue that in The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Aibileen expresses Guardian values, Minny expresses Artisan values, and Miss Skeeter expresses Rational values. Yet the novel itself expresses Idealist values. The voices of the three point-of-view characters come together to give the novel a voice that’s different from the sum of its parts.

Your experiences

I’m a Pennsylvanian who’s made a home in North Carolina. I know how disorienting it is to leave your support system behind, and start a new life in a strange place with customs you don’t understand. My experience with this sense of alienation plays a role in my fiction.

But note that your experiences aren’t limited to things you’ve personally lived through. We’ve all been listening to stories—through books, TV, movies, and conversation—since we were born. The people you know also have a unique set of experiences that they can share with you. The old caveat, write what you know, is backwards. It should be know what you write. Research. Interview people. Travel if you have to. Draw on your past, but continue to build your store of knowledge.

Your interests

If you love jazz, set a couple of scenes in a jazz club. Include dialogue that could only be spoken by a jazz connoisseur. If you garden, include descriptions of trees and flowers that demonstrate your specific knowledge. These kinds of details add depth and authenticity to a scene.

Your interests may also affect the theme of your work. As a writer of women’s fiction, I’m fascinated by the effects of human evolution on behavior, particularly in the differences between men and women. In most primate societies, to avoid inbreeding, females stay in the troupe they were born into; males, on the other hand, are forced out when they reach sexual maturity, and must make their way in the world. Modern human females largely define themselves in terms of their relationships, whereas males define themselves in terms of identity. My fiction explores the conflicts that naturally occur as a result: for instance, the woman is trying to preserve the relationship but her partner is trying to preserve his identity. Or, conversely, a woman’s search for identity creates problems in her relationships.

Voice is one of those things that’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. The best way to ensure that your voice shines through is to be authentic, to write from your core self, and to be fearless. If you’re not willing to take chances in your fiction, to expose the deepest parts of yourself, you won’t touch the reader’s heart. It’s that emotional connection to the characters that keeps readers engaged. A story without voice is a story that won’t sell. So don’t hold back. Write for all you’re worth.

Can You Make a Living As a Novelist?

A reader asked whether I thought it was possible to make a living as a novelist in the current environment. We’re seeing deep changes in the publishing industry. That can be scary, because change creates uncertainty. But I believe that this is the most exciting time ever to be a novelist. We have more publishing options, more delivery options, and more ways of connecting to potential readers. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to make a living as a novelist. In fact, it may be more difficult now, because readers are more demanding and sophisticated. So what can you do to increase your odds?

1. Write a stellar book.

Whether you choose traditional or self-publishing, your manuscript must have no major flaws. Major flaws include:

  • Numerous grammar and spelling errors
  • An opening that doesn’t hook the reader
  • No distinct voice
  • A plot that doesn’t move
  • Characters that readers can’t identify with quickly enough
  • Wooden dialogue
  • Overblown descriptions
  • Events that seem to happen at random without a connection to the main character’s journey
  • A contrived ending

The gatekeepers in traditional publishing will keep you out if your debut novel has these flaws. But if you go with self-publishing, you can publish your manuscript anyway. The problem is, no one will buy it. You won’t get the word of mouth endorsements you need in order for the novel to succeed. And anyone who does read the book will avoid your future ones.

2. Write another stellar book.

Very few people can make enough money to retire on from their first novel. It’s likely that it will take 3 or 4 novels before you build a fan base. You must be in it for the long haul. Ideally, you should follow up your first book with your second in six months to a year. Readers who love your book, and are panting for more, will give up on you if you keep them waiting too long. Bob Mayer recommends that you don’t self-publish until you’ve got three books ready to go. Only then will your promotion pay off in sales.

3. Don’t put more time into promotion than you do into writing.

These days, even fiction writers need a platform before most acquiring editors will consider them. If they Google your name and don’t find you, that’s bad. You should be on Facebook and Twitter, maybe LinkedIn and Google+. It also helps to have a blog with a decent number of hits. But none of that matters if you’re not focusing on your manuscript first, making it the best it can be. Read books in your genre, study the craft, and write every day.

4. Eliminate non-essentials from your life

Writing a novel is a full-time job. If you’ve got another full-time job to pay the bills, then you need to eliminate things from your life that don’t contribute to your writing practice. That doesn’t mean giving up your social life. If you and your spouse enjoy throwing a Super Bowl party every year, don’t let your writing get in the way of that. But if the only reason you watch the big game is to see the commercials, then maybe your Super Bowl Sunday would be better spent in front of a keyboard than in front of a TV.

5. Get feedback on your work (from someone who’s qualified to give it)

Chances are pretty good that your mom will love your novel. After all, she loved those crayon drawings you did when you were three. Were those crayon drawings masterpieces because your mom loved them? No. The same is true for your manuscript.

Join a critiquing group, either local or online. Participate in events offered by writing organizations, and seek out fellow writers you can trust to serve as beta readers. Keep in mind that the first few times someone critiques your creative writing, it will be excruciating. But in time, it gets easier. You start looking forward to the feedback because you know it will make your work stronger.

6. Want it more than you’ve ever wanted anything

Chances are, writing your first salable novel will be a long-term commitment. It requires you to pour in your emotions, to be more honest than you’ve ever been. It means giving up your leisure time. These sacrifices are hard, so ask yourself: can you go to your grave satisfied if you never become a published author? If the answer is yes, then you may not have the drive and the passion it takes to see this thing through.

Success in publishing is about 30% talent. The rest is timing, perseverance, and luck. A lot is out of your control. But if you want it enough, you work hard enough, and you keep at it for as long as it takes, you may just have a chance.

Query Letters: Seduce, Don’t Summarize

In her blog SlushPileTales, literary agent Lauren Ruth of Bookends LLC runs a wonderful series called Query Dice. She critiques queries (with the author’s permission, of course), and invites readers to share their views as well. One thing stands out to me about the queries she’s featured so far: the authors are trying to summarize their book, instead of crafting a marketing pitch to hook the agent. They’re giving the agent more information than she needs, and the result is confusion rather than excitement.

Agents are in part to blame for this. Too many agency websites state that the query letter should contain a “synopsis” or “summary” of the novel. Those words suggest that the author should encapsulate the entire plot in two paragraphs. But as editor Jane Friedman says, “A query letter is not a straightforward description of your work. It’s a sales letter. It should be persuasive and seduce the agent into requesting your work.”

Other agency websites ask for a “description” or a “pitch.” These terms are better, but “description” could lead some writers to submit a beautiful abstraction, instead of focusing on plot. And “pitch” could lead some writers to declare, “It’s the next Da Vinci Code!” or “It’s better than Eat, Pray, Love!” Agents don’t want that, either.

What agents really want is back jacket copy—that marketing copy on the back cover that convinces the reader to buy the book. Back jacket copy must entice readers, revealing enough to pique their interest but not so much that their curiosity wanes. Your query should do the same for an agent.

For instance, here’s my attempt at writing back jacket copy for my favorite novel, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen:

When Charles Bingley rents an estate in Hertfordshire in Regency England, the mamas of the eligible daughters in the neighborhood welcome him with undisguised glee. Chief among these mamas is Mrs. Bennet, who has produced five daughters, but no sons to inherit the family estate. The two eldest Bennet sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, hope for love but know that marrying well is their only security against poverty when their father’s fortune inevitably passes to a distant cousin.

Bingley is smitten by the lovely but modest Jane. Then, his friend Darcy visits Hertfordshire. The grandson of an earl, Darcy is shocked by the coarse manners of the provincial society. Jane’s vivacious sister Elizabeth teases Darcy out of his silence. But when Jane and Elizabeth’s family expose their own follies at a ball, Darcy whisks Bingley out of Hertfordshire to save him from Mrs. Bennet’s designs, leaving Jane heartbroken. Elizabeth realizes a painful truth: The greatest threat to her future happiness isn’t the entail on her father’s estate. It’s her mother’s crassness, her sisters’ wildness, and her father’s benign indifference. If she and Jane hope to find love with men of quality, the sisters must rise out of the stifling country society into which they were born.

This copy isn’t perfect—for one thing, it names 5 characters, which is 3 too many. The novel’s protagonist, Elizabeth, doesn’t feature prominently enough. But this is the way the novel reads. It introduces a number of characters at once, and Elizabeth doesn’t dominate at first. In this sense, the rhythm of the copy follows the rhythm of the novel.

Note that this copy focuses mainly on the early chapters of the novel. Then, the second half of the second paragraph skips forward to the midpoint reversal. The final sentence summarizes the protagonist’s course of action based on the new information she receives at the midpoint, which begins the long lead-up to the climax.

Note also what I left out: I barely hinted at the courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy. Their courtship is a critical part of Elizabeth’s internal journey, but it doesn’t drive the external plot. In fact, Elizabeth doesn’t realize she’s engaged in courtship with Darcy until halfway through the novel. So I gave the reader just enough information to suspect that the two might become a couple.

I also left out the subplots, such as Charlotte’s marriage to Mr. Collins, and Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. There’s no room for subplots in a query letter.

Before you try to write the query, I recommend that you first write a logline. A logline is a one-sentence description of the main action of the story. Here’s a possible logline for Pride and Prejudice:

Two sisters in Regency England must marry well to avoid poverty, but the uncouth manners of their family threaten to frighten off any men of quality they meet.

This logline is horribly reductive. It doesn’t begin to capture the magnificence of one of the greatest novels of all time. But a logline isn’t supposed to do that. It’s supposed to leave the audience wanting more. And having a logline will help you write your query with a laser focus on the main plot.

Why is writing a query difficult for many budding novelists? Author and self-publishing guru Bob Mayer looks to the Myers-Briggs personality types for one explanation: “Promoter (ESTP) is the complete opposite of Author (INFJ).” As an INFJ author myself, I can relate. But remember, the MBTI types are based on preference, not ability. Writing promotional copy is a skill you can learn, even if it doesn’t come naturally to you.

Chapter 4 of Bob Mayer’s book Write It Forward contains more information on how the MBTI can help fiction writers plan their career and deepen their characters. This book is available in multiple formats from Who Dares Wins Publishing, and is also available from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Related links:
The INFJ Writing Personality: Eloquent Vision