I am working on a nonfiction idea for a book. I’ve written a few of the obligatory rotten first chapters. They feel like a bare skeleton of how I truly want the book to read, like chicken scratches in the dirt, when what I really need is depth and substance, a personal connection with the reader. It’s all right, for now. It’s what I expect for a rough, rough—really rough—first draft. But taking the manuscript to the next level is going to require a lot more personal work and difficult examination on my part.
One of the reasons I’m not satisfied with how my writing is progressing is that I know I’m not yet delivering to a potential reader the depth of what I want her to get from the book. I have this quote wedged in the cabinet of my desk, reminding me to push a little harder and deeper for my truth:
If you want to be a writer, at some point your allegiance must shift from experiencing what is important to you, what happened to you, what you saw, to artifact—what you make of it. – Richard Hoffman
As writers—especially of nonfiction—we have it hammered into us fairly early on in our learning process that what we experience, the facts by themselves, just aren’t enough. The gift writers offer is our interpretation of events—what we learned, what it all means. Being able to uncover and express our truths is the take-away we give. Can readers learn something similar? Can you share your journey so they travel with you and maybe have a few insights of their own? If we can deliver this, we have them hooked. The personal unfolding of experience will happen within our readers too.
Nina Amir, over at her wonderful site Write Nonfiction Now, recently posted an article titled “Create Book Ideas With Reader Value”. In the article, she offers a great way to visually map questions to ask about your reader, helping writers to think specifically of their target audiences’ needs. She includes prompts to get your creative juices flowing about your readers' problems, questions, needs, wants, challenges, pains, and goals. If you can get a working idea of their concerns and respond to them through your writing, you are well on your way to composing a marketable book that will make a difference.
I realize that in order to get beyond the surface of my experience, I’m going to need to dig at these kinds of questions a bit more—to understand my readers’ needs and make this a book they can’t put down, a book that resonates not only in their mind but in their hearts as well. As I work through Ms. Amir’s prompts, I expect the process to help me mine even more richly, as Richard Hoffman suggests, what I make of my experience. I need to be the archaeologist, uncover the treasures and polish them so the ideas can be fully appreciated and incorporated. Right now, my words are still just dirt-covered lumps of potential.
We write because we love the process of creation. But we read because it means something to us—a chance to escape, live another life in another world, experience conflict and successful resolution, discover new meaning, truths and insights we can apply in our own lives.
I’m OK with my work and ideas as they stand now in their very crude form, but I’m not satisfied, which is how it should be. I still have a lot of digging to do.
How about you? Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, how do you make sure you are keeping your readers’ needs in mind? Have you ever tried a mind map method as Nina suggests? Has it worked for you?
As writers, we are always mindful of and attentive to the reading experience.