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[Making the Leap] Write Like An Archaeologist
Written by
Julie Luek
February 2014
Written by
Julie Luek
February 2014

Type, backspace, type, read, reread, delete. Type some more. Sigh in frustration. Self-talk, turn off the critic. More inner chatter, something is missing. Keep going. Sound familiar? 

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. 

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  • Julie Luek

    TOH Lee hong-- very very wise advice--- thank you for adding your thoughts. Much truth there. 

  • Lifan Writing

    Hi Julie Another interesting article. We write because we love the process of creation, so true. Also we write because we have something to say and we want to share our views. I tend to stumble upon or drawn to writings which contain passages that resonate with me. Writers and readers must somehow have a certain level of connection before they find each other so perhaps you should just write and keep writing what you want to write about and I think you are doing great . Cheers !

  • Sherrey Meyer

    Yay, Julie! We'll get it done ... I finally printed out what I had written and decided to start reading it and thinking like a reader. Making some revisions as I go, and it's already starting to sound better. Keep writing!

  • Julie Luek

    Sherrey, Yay-- we're not alone. I went through Nina's questions and it did help me focus my thoughts. I think I need to just write anyway, get it out there, then in my revisions focus again on the reader. Otherwise, I just freeze. 

    Nancy, Oh congratulations-- going to go look up your book now! Thank you for the encouragement for all of us. 

  • Nancy MacMillan

    Julie, I was hooked by your title and wanted to read further. I'm smiling because I've been where you are now. It took me 16 years to write my memoir, but then again, there were no such mentors as SheWrites. I self-published in Dec 2013 and it's on Amazon. Kindle offers first 11 chapters free, if anyone is interested in a hook and writing from the heart. The process is called Narrative Nonfiction. With my memoir, I learned to speak the truth about myself and others would relate. I didn't write for them, but I knew they were experiencing the same as I. My books are selling, the reviews humble me and my blog has reached 69 countries. I'll continue to stop by, if I can help in any way. Thanks for letting me share my two cents ... :) Keep on writing.



  • Sherrey Meyer

    I'm struggling with the same problem, and I'm about 2/3 of the way through drafting a memoir. Yet I feel as if I haven't kept my reader in mind as I've written. What will engage them? What do they want from me? I know I have more than a story to tell; I have the opportunity to give hope to my readers. But how? I too read Nina's post the other day. Although I've used mind mapping in preparing for writing my book, I have never used it to visualize my readers. I've been thinking about that a lot since reading Nina's post. Thanks for letting me know someone else is traveling this road with me!

  • Julie Luek

    Meg, I totally agree with this. But knowing what those "toeholds" are requires understanding who will probably read your book/blog/article. Yes. I think the best books/articles I read do exactly as you suggest.

  • Meg E Dobson

    Sometimes I muse that our job is not to write to a reader's need, but to provide the toeholds for them to work their own way to resolution of their needs. The more toeholds you provide, the more readers will join with you in your own climbing journey.

    Olga, loved your 'far from me but I poured myself into her.' Beautiful thought and so true.

  • Aidan Larson

    '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.'

    Thank you for this. I'm putting that quote on my desktop to keep me going. I also feel that I need to dig deeper, that if I just free myself more in my writing something better will come from it for the reader. I have to find a way to do that without my inner censor piping up and stopping me short of going all in.

    Keep going....we need to hear your story.


  • Julie Luek

    Olga, I love this: What I found in my own writing and reading: for a book to be successful, a writer must open up, bare her soul. No bars, no shame, no embarrassing omissions. I think that's part of where my "digging" needs to occur.

    Mardith, I just wanted to quote your whole comment. Very helpful-- thank you for sharing. I might have to just write that up on an index card and put it in my desk too. 

    Virgina, I think trying to control the reaction is pointless but trying to understand who your book will be written for can really help guide the writing. At least that's what I'm sensing and got from Nina's post.  Thank you!

  • Julie Luek

    Stephanie, glad its relevant! I look forward to checking out your blog. And boy, do I ever dislike that inner critic!

    Cindy, great quote: "If it matters to you it will matter to someone else". Now writing it so I convey that is the struggle I'm currently in. 

    Ellen, Keeping a journal is a great idea and can really do a lot of the work-- thank you for sharing that idea. 

  • Virginia Llorca

    It must be difficult to imagine how your target audience will receive your work. I get reactions so disparate, I have to wonder what they were reading.

  • Mardith Louisell

    W. H. Auden wrote: all good art is in the nature of a letter written to amuse a sick friend, not a letter to oneself."  Interesting and worth considering as I get deeper and deeper into my preoccupations, especially in memoir, where you have to go deeply but also remember the sick friend who  shouldn't have to struggle with sentimentalities meaningful only to me and not made to resonate with others.

  • Olga Godim

    I don't know about non-fiction - I write fiction. But I do know that when a writer tries to custom-make her book to satisfy a specific group of readers, the result isn't good. I like what Kurt Vonnegut said in his 8 rules of writing. His rule #7: "Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia."

    Write for one Reader - yourself or your favorite beta-reader or your cousin or whoever - but never for everyone. Sometimes, you don't even know who your target readers are until the book is done.

    What I found in my own writing and reading: for a book to be successful, a writer must open up, bare her soul. No bars, no shame, no embarrassing omissions. Exercises and prompts are all good for learning the skills, but for the real thing, the more naked the writing, the better. It's pretty hard for a non-fiction writer. Easier for fiction - more distance between a writer and her characters, but not that much of a distance, really, even if they live in an imaginary world and ride dragons to work.

    The protagonist in my recently published fantasy novel is a seventeen-year-old magician living in a kingdom 'far-far-away'. She is as far from me as I could manage, but I poured myself into her. She thinks and acts as I would've done in similar situations... if I were as brave as she is. Not everybody likes her. Some people don't. Some people don't like me either. The interesting observation I've made - readers are not indifferent to her. I think I should consider it a success. The courage to open up is the key. 

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Good question, Julie.  I find that when you’re recounting a true story or a true journey – rather than making something up out of your imagination – it’s especially difficult to keep track of what you know that your reader doesn’t know.  On my travels, I kept a diary, which helped me keep track of what I learned day by day, what was new to me at each stage of the journey.  Then, when my journey was over, I could look back and be aware of what the reader would be thinking and wondering at each point in the narrative.

  • Cindy La Ferle

    Great question, and one that I learned to deal with when I was a weekly newspaper columnist. I wrote a personal column (typically on family/motherhood topics) and had the privilege of writing about anything that struck me, week to week. Sometimes I'd question the value of my topic or wonder why my readers should care about an issue I'd chosen to cover. When that happened, my editor used to remind me, "If it matters to you in some way, it will matter to someone else." I'd also consult with a team of friends and readers, who'd set me straight or help me explore a particular issue in another way, or a deeper way. Hope this helps you!

  • Stephanie Bird

    Wow! Julie, your post is so interesting and so relevant to where I am right now. I am working on a new novel and also on a nonfiction book that I had sat aside and have now taken back up. Previously, I published 5 nonfiction books. I keep going back and forth between research and writing on both of them. I like your archaeologist analogy especially for nonfiction. I think it is so important to uncover and then polish your treasured bits of information. The older I get, the longer my books are taking to complete. I start them and maybe even finish them without submitting because the inner critic takes over. This is a tough journey. One thing I do to keep my readers' needs in mind is cultivate community with them, wherein I feel free to engage them in my process and I get feedback as I work.my blog talks about this process more.

    This site features my nonfiction work to date

  • Julie Luek

    Hi Susie, I think there's a lot of truth in what you're saying, although it did help me to look at that a little more closely-- it helped me understand what I felt was missing. BUT, having said that, yes over-thinking is my curse. And, not tapping in to guidance with this project and listening. I need to learn that. I know you totally get this, my sister in nonfiction. 

  • Julie Luek

     Hey Mel, I actually worked through the ideas and questions Nina suggested in her post and it was like a light bulb went off in my head. By examining the readers' concerns, I understood better what I sensed was missing from my writing. Now... how to fix it. ;) Like you, I'm working on being a little more methodical in my writing and this book is going to require that kind of thought. 

  • Susie Klein

    Julie, this is inspiring to me. Nonfiction writing is intense isn't it? As you know, I too am working on one and I want it to be full of truth...on many levels. And that is hard to find without digging, as you so clearly explained. I sometimes wonder if I paralyze myself when I try to think too hard about the reader, rather than just spilling out my own truthful experience. What do you think? 

  • M. Kinnel

    Julie, I really love how you used the comparison between writing and archaeology. I never thought of it that way but it all seems to make sense. 

    I usually write a synopsis about each of my characters with back story info, physical characteristics, goals and aspirations, etc. I'm really working on trying to get out of being a panster and becoming a better plotter. I'll have to look into the mind map method and see if that's something that would help me move forward. 

    When I write, I definitely have the reader in mind and what their expectations will be. I've even taken to forums and social media to throw ideas out there just to see what people's reactions will be. For instance, if my protagonist is less than perfect, I still want the reader to like her.

    Again, great article!

  • Julie Luek

    Jenny, I actually have plans to paint one of my walls (or maybe just my door) with chalkboard paint when I move back into my office. I love the idea of being able to just spontaneously write out things as they occur to me. And I agree, it IS a learning experience!

  • Julie Luek

    Tyrean, Yeah, I just know that I have a good idea but need to put myself out there more I guess-- get beyond the words, if that makes sense, so I can touch readers' hearts and minds. That's my goal, especially since this is a nonfiction project. I want readers to say, "oh, I so totally get this". I've run the idea by several women (45+ my targe audience range) and, when I explain it verbally, it clicks for them. They say, "Oh, I never thought of it like that before" which is exactly what I want. Getting that into print isn't there yet. 

    I'm going to have to check out Hadrian's Wall. And yes, do check out Nina's site if you're working on a nonfiction book, especially-- oodles of great information. I read it regularly. 

  • Tyrean Martinson

    I love your analogy, Julie! Any kind of writing is the work of an archeologist - digging up the bones of the work, and then building them up again into a form that others can connect with. I know when I saw Hadrian's Wall for the first time, I struggled with disappointment. Then, my family and I found a site that explained the way that archeologists thought the wall must have looked hundreds of years ago. With that larger picture in my mind, Hadrian's Wall took on greater proportion's and meaning.

    I'll have to check out that mind map method by Nina. I'm writing a book on writing for my homeschool classes - it's very "curriculum/lesson plan" orientated so the bones/outline of the project is clear to me, but getting the words on the page right has been a struggle. Plus, I'm trying to finish revisions on my novel, Champion in Flight. I work best when I flip back and forth between projects . . . hard to explain, but when I get really frustrated with one, I can take a break from it but still keep writing.