The right tool can change everything. I remember the first time I used a Pilot Precise V5 pen for writing practice. My words slid onto the page almost effortlessly (at least the mechanical process). I feel the same appreciation for my computer. And the messenger bag I carry everywhere? It’s perfection because it makes all my belongings stay put.
In this post, I share four practical writing and editing tools you can use right away, no matter where you are in the process. They might surprise you; they aren’t tools in the physical sense, but they fit within Merriam-Webster’s definition: “something that serves as a means to an end: an instrument by which something is effected or accomplished.” These tools will help you write, revise, and even sell or submit your story.
These tools serve as filters to help you make the decisions needed to keep your story on track. They make your efforts more effective and efficient, easier to perform and more consistent. Treat them as your North Star or the values that drive everything you do. Something that’s cool about these filters is that, like a great bit of dialogue in your story, they serve more than one purpose, and I include their bonus functions below.
My top four writing and editing tools (or filters) are
- distillate, and
- ideal reader.
Top Writing Tool # 1: Genre
Your genre is not only the type of story you’re writing, but also a list of ingredients. I know some people cringe when someone talks about structure or conventions; they want to be free to create at will. I agree to a point. Writers should run wild and free and write what they like.
But if you want to sell to an audience, you must have some way of conveying the experience, themes, conflict, and feelings the reader will encounter. Genre is our culture’s way of communicating what’s inside.
Even if you can’t name genre conventions or tropes, you probably know them when you see them. Mystery is an easy one: it includes a crime (often murder), a professional or amateur sleuth, and a villain for starters. Mystery subgenre tropes get more specific: A cozy mystery usually has an amateur sleuth, little violence, and the focus is on finding our whodunit. A police procedural has a police officer for a protagonist and the story focuses on the police methods used to discover and catch the villain.
To explore genres and uncover typical conventions, I suggest reading or watching examples (novels, short stories, movies, and TV shows) and studying them. Two great sources for models are Story by Robert McKee or The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne.
It’s good to check in with your genre and its conventions when you finish each new draft because sometimes our writing wanders away from the objective. During the writing phase, we want to get the words down, and evaluating whether they fit too soon can inhibit the creative process. If you’re still on track, then you can keep your list of conventions handy as questions and further decisions come up. If you have strayed from your genre conventions, then assess which story you want to tell. (That discussion is for another day.)
Clarity begets clarity. The better you know your genre, the clearer you can be about your ideal reader; your book cover, categories, and key words if you’re going indie; and where to submit if you’re going the traditional route.
Top Writing Tool # 2: Purpose
Your purpose is your point. Why are you writing what you write? You could choose from the whole universe, so why this story? What are you trying to achieve? What is it that fascinates you? Another angle of approach: What do you want this story to do for your reader?
It’s okay if you want fame and fortune and to entertain people. Those may be the first answers to arise. I encourage you to dig deeper, below what you’ve heard other people say to what you don’t realize is within you. (Writing practice is great for this purpose. Start with, Why this story? See the mission below for instructions if you’re unfamiliar with writing practice.)
Your purpose will show you how to chip away at the parts of your rough draft that aren’t essential to the story. Does this scene support the purpose? If you can't make a good case for it, then you should kill that darling. The same is true at the level of sentences and words. It gets pickier and harder to discern there, but when your purpose is clear, it will guide you in most questions. This tool helps you gain the perspective that is so difficult when editing our own work.
Writing a book takes time and effort. Resistance will come up and make you want to quit. Your purpose will help you remember why and help you get your butt in the chair. And don’t forget the other writing you do. Find the purpose for your blog posts, letters, and sales copy.
Top Writing Tool # 3: Distillate
The distillate is your story in concentrated form once you boil away all that isn’t its purest expression. You’ll want to include the protagonist and sometimes the villain, the setting, the problem, and what’s at stake (or why the reader should care).
Do this in twenty to thirty words. Why so few? This is the story stripped to the core to help you make decisions. If it’s too long, it won’t offer laser focus. If you struggle with this, know you’re not alone. I find this process painful. Start with one hundred or five hundred words (or use writing practice described below). Cut the easy things first: adverbs and hesitant words (in order to, for the purpose of, beginning/starting to, there is/was). Then work deeper.
The distillate works like the purpose, but is the what to your why. Is this scene included within the universe described by your distillate? Is it vital to this specific story? If your answer is no, you know what to do.
You can use this as your elevator pitch, and it’s great practice for finding words that don’t add meaning.
Top Writing Tool # 4: Ideal Reader
Identifying your ideal reader is something that can chafe a bit for some authors. It’s hard to know who will buy before you start selling. But this tool starts working for you long before then.
The ideal reader or customer is used in business and marketing (I heard this first from either Seth Godin or Marie Forleo). It’s not new, but it feels counterintuitive. Why narrow it down to one person (or two if you have a male and female version)? It’s tempting to say you hope to appeal to lots of people and create a long list of ideal readers. I understand the urge, but it’s akin to trying to please too many people. You dilute the focus and may not speak to anyone.
The more you write to one particular person (gender, age, marital status, work, family, city, etc., someone you can see and understand), the more likely you will be specific and consistent in your writing. When your prose resonates with that one person, it’s as if a special sound wave travels to others who may share a single quality with your ideal reader.
But what if you’re writing for yourself. I understand that too. But if you want to send your stories into the world to share what’s in your mind and heart, you need to think beyond what writing the book does for you.
How do you find your ideal reader?
Some people are lucky. One author I know has a friend she secretly uses as her ideal reader. If that person hasn’t wandered into your life, try the mission below and ask, Who do I envision buying, reading, and enjoying my book? My hunch is that a part of you knows, but you can’t access the identity with your conscious mind.
How do you use your ideal reader as a filter?
Ask yourself, would my reader understand this word? How does my reader feel about cussing? Can my reader relate to this character? Will my reader be intrigued by this hook? (If you have any doubts about how to answer these questions, think of your ideal reader as a character. How do you know what your protagonist will say, think, and do?)
Knowing who your ideal reader is can tell you how, when, and where to engage.
Please know that although these all seem simple and straightforward, the process could feel quite challenging and might wake the dragon we call resistance. Use consistent practice to overcome. You’re here because you want to write stories, and so am I. Let’s help each other to move steadily onward.
If you listen to the podcast, you know how I feel about editorial missions. I use missions to break big jobs into smaller tasks. And I enjoy thinking of these tasks as little adventures. Here’s a mission to help you use what I shared above. (If you can’t do this now, schedule some time in your calendar.)
If you don’t have all four of the filters described above, create a draft of each or what your missing this week. If you’ve already created your filters, evaluate whether they still work for you and your story. If not, revise them.
To create or revise your drafts, try writing practice:
- Set a timer and start with a topic or prompt (my genre’s conventions are, the purpose of my story is, my story is, my ideal reader is).
- Keep your pen or fingers moving until the timer stops, no matter how ridiculous it sounds or how loud your resistance screams.
- You are no judge of what comes out during this time, so no crossing out or deleting.
- If you get stuck, repeat your prompt or write I am stuck, and Leslie is a jerk for suggesting this until it clears. (It’s okay, I can take it.)
- When the time is up, set it aside and give yourself a suitable reward. (Do not skip this step. I get your wanting to move onto another task and achieve something else. I get a dopamine hit from checking off that box too. But take a moment, reflect, and give yourself a high five.)
Later, come back and cut what isn’t helpful. Save anything interesting but off topic on the last page of your notebook or in a separate document. Don’t obsess or let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Your goal is version 1.0 of all four filters, so do the best you can then move on.
Write or type your working title and four filters on a single piece of paper and make copies. Post a copy where you write and anyplace where distraction from writing lies in wait. Keep a copy with your writing materials as well if you write away from home.
As you develop a deeper understanding of your filters, revise and repost.
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