About Christina M. H. Powell

Dr. Christina M. H. Powell is the author of "Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith" (InterVarsity Press, 2014). She is a medical writer trained as a biomedical research scientist at Harvard Medical School and Harvard University as well as an ordained Assemblies of God minister and public speaker.

Stepping Stones to Writing Success

Stepping stones

Along the journey from staring out the window thinking of a marketable idea for a new book to unpacking the box of freshly printed books sent by the publisher, a writer needs to set small goals to serve as stepping stones to writing success. While each person will have a unique approach to setting project milestones, here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Conduct market research: Stroll through several local bookstores, flip through the pages of catalogs, and browse the websites of online book retailers to see what books are on the market now in the category of your book proposal. You will need to find about five comparable books to discuss in the Comparable Titles section of your book proposal. However, marketing research is helpful for you as you define what you hope to accomplish and cover within the pages of your potential book. You do not want to duplicate the work of another author. By reading what has been said by other writers about your topic, you can better understand what you have to contribute to the topic. Do not be discouraged from writing a book in a popular category. The existence of many books on the topic indicates a market for that subject.
  2. Set realistic deadlines: As you prepare to publish your book, you will encounter many deadlines. Within your book proposal, you will specify how long it will take you from signing a new contract with your publisher to handing in the first draft of the manuscript to the editor. A time period between five to six months is a good goal for completing a nonfiction manuscript. Make sure that you are confident you can complete the manuscript on time. Once you sign the book contract, break down the goal of writing the book content into smaller deadlines for yourself. Be sure to allow some margin for the interruptions and distractions that arise in the life of all writers. The sooner you finish your first draft, the sooner you can move on to the other tasks necessary for publishing your book. Set ambitious but achievable deadlines.
  3. Connect with key influencers: As I wrote about in an earlier post, “Finding Champions for Your Book,” many people will contribute to the future success of your book. Hopefully, you already have strong relationships with many of these key influencers. Use the time from the beginning stages of book proposal preparation to the completion of the manuscript to strengthen existing relationships with champions for your book and forge new ones. Connecting with people will provide a welcome break from the tedium of writing. You will remember the purpose for your pursuit of your writing goals. You can sharpen your ideas by discussing them with a few trusted advisors. You will prepare yourself for the upcoming transition from writer to marketer of your own book. The sooner you prepare to connect with potential readers, the better for everyone involved in publishing your book.

What do you consider as important stepping stones to writing success?

New Possibilities for a New Year

Empty road to upcoming 2017 at sunrise

The sunrise of a new year.

  1. Your future is not limited by the past. While past successes and experiences can inspire the future, as I wrote about in my book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, the future does not need to be limited by the past. New scientific discoveries can build on past knowledge, but they also can disrupt old paradigms. For example, the microprocessor made computing available to nearly everyone, with a modern laptop more powerful that a computer that once took up an entire room. Thanks to this invention, most writers prepare their manuscripts using convenient word processors instead of typewriters, and keep their contact list of agents, editors, and publishers on their smartphone in place of their Rolodex. In the not-so-distant future, writers might conference with editors and other writers in virtual reality, skipping the long lines at airports and time spent traveling. As a writer, your next fresh idea can define the future. Your past projects may influence your future goals, but feel free to try something new and even disruptive. Progress happens when people dream new dreams. Let the start of the New Year serve as your excuse to pursue a great new project.
  2. New friendships are waiting to be discovered by you. Writers quickly learn the value of relationships in their profession. After all, writing is all about communicating and collaborating. Even when writers spent quiet hours alone putting their thoughts on the page, the needs and interests of their readers shape their work. The audience of readers is always present when a writer expresses ideas with words. By the time a book reaches the shelves of a bookstore or the warehouse of an online retailer, the writer has collaborated with many people – literary agents, editors, illustrators, cover designers, copy editors, reviewers, publicists, and marketing directors. These colleagues as well as radio interviewers, blog readers, online reviewers, customers, and conference coordinators become new friends in the life of a writer. Resolve to maintain the friendships you have formed as a writer in years past, while staying open to the possibilities of accepting the input, advice, and encouragement of new friendships in the year to come.
  3. To accomplish your goal, break it down into discrete, doable steps. Whether you are planning to write a blog post in one evening or a book in six months, if you have a plan divided into measurable and actionable steps, you are well on your way to getting the job done. Fit your plan into your lifestyle and your current schedule to keep it realistic and achievable. Can you envision setting aside two hours every evening to complete a new manuscript? Should you schedule a vacation in a secluded and beautiful setting surrounded by nature in order to disconnect from everything and make your writing deadline? Having a plan that matches your working habits and the needs of your family and other responsibilities increases the likelihood of reaching your goal. Great new projects need to-do lists and new friendships need time set aside to develop the relationships. Make a plan that fits your life so your dreams can come to fruition in the New Year.

What do you plan to do to prepare for the new possibilities awaiting you in the New Year?

Finding Champions for Your Book

Euphoric winner friends using a with a tablet

A winning team has dedicated fans. A successful candidate has loyal supporters. Artists and museums have influential patrons. No one flourishes alone. You and your book will not be exceptions to this rule. You will need champions who will promote your book within their circle of influence, open doors for interviews and speaking engagements, and remain loyal fans when you release your next book.

Let’s consider some of the qualities that make an ideal champion:

Dedicated: You will find a great champion for your book in a person who is dedicated. Publishing and marketing a book is a long process. Six months before the book is available, Amazon and other bookstores with an online presence will make the book available for pre-release order. A dedicated champion is someone whose interest in your book will last from reading an early manuscript to attending a book release party. It’s great to have all kinds of people interested in your book, even those who will only join you for part of the publishing journey. However, your inner circle as an author should be populated with people who have a reputation for following through on their commitments, finishing the projects they start, and sustaining interest in your topic for many years.

Loyal: Writing a book is an exciting process. Many people will enjoy knowing someone who is a published author. Who knows if they will appear in the book dedication, inspire a character within the story, or benefit in their chosen career from knowing an expert on the subject of your book (you)? Again, it’s great to have all kinds of people interested in your book, even those whose interest in your book may arise from dubious motivations. However, if you are to succeed as an author, you will need to sort out the loyal champions of your book from those who will be quick to jump to the next project that promises more rewards. Include everyone in your publishing process if you can, but invest in those who have demonstrated loyalty to you in the past.

Influential: A dedicated and loyal friend is a priceless treasure. However, when you search for potential champions for your book, you will need to look for someone who is influential as well. Influencers exist in many different spheres, and a person influential in one setting may not be influential in others. A person influential within his or her field who knows top leaders within an organization may lack an online presence. A person in the early stages of his or her career may have gathered a great social media following. Both the senior leader with contacts in the field but a negligible online presence and the upcoming leader with the great social media following are influencers. You need all kinds of influencers. Look for potential champions for your book at various stages of career development. Show appreciation for the young blogger along with the radio host, the conference organizer, and the bookstore owner.

How do you spot a potential champion for your book?

Enjoying Variety in Writing

Mixed fruits and vegetables at organic fair

Mixed fruits and vegetables at organic fair

Just as a wide selection of fruits and vegetables makes for a nutritionally balanced diet that promotes good health, variety in writing can improve the quality of prose a person produces. While specializing in one type of writing allows a person to focus, I believe a writer can benefit from tackling different lengths and styles of writing assignments. Here are three ways that writing articles helps an author of a book:

  1. Article writing teaches clarity. The limited word count of an article trains an author to think clearly and write concisely. While an author of a book can define and develop his or her message across many chapters, a writer preparing an article must get the job done in less than a few pages. I found that article writing for journals and magazines helped me winnow my words and learn to support my key ideas with only the strongest illustrations from the most reliable sources. Article writing also honed my ability to write an outline – a skill useful for writing book proposals.
  2. Article writing permits creativity. If you want to test an idea or a style, find a suitable publication and write a query to the editor. If you succeed, you will probably have between 1000 and 2500 words to try out your concept. If you discover a great new topic that deserves further exploration, you can follow up by writing a book proposal. If you find that you can express all your thoughts on the topic within an article or two, you have broadened your horizons without the long commitment that book writing entails. Move on and try another topic until you find your niche. Working with a variety of editors will improve your writing career. You will gain insights and learn new techniques from each editor.
  3. Article writing expands an author’s audience. To be granted the privilege of publishing a book, you need a platform. To maintain book sales, you need to connect with readers. Article writing creates the platform a novice writer needs in order to obtain that first book contract. Article writing also helps a seasoned author keep in touch with readers. Choose publications most likely to interest your potential readers, but, remember, if you write for new publications, you will expand your audience. Online publications or print publications with an online presence create opportunities to share your work across social media, a bonus for an author trying to reach more people.

I have learned to enjoy variety in writing, appreciating the different approaches to communicating to the specific audience for a given publication. Article writing gives me the opportunity to address a wider variety of issues than I could cover through book writing alone. What types of writing have shaped your writing career? What have you learned from writing beyond the pages of a book?

Fitting the Words to the Occasion

Global business strategy

Solving globe puzzle by finding the correct puzzle pieces

In elementary school, I discovered the joys and complexities of writing. Through a summer creative writing class, I learned how the right word choice can make a poem memorable, dialogue meaningful, and a setting realistic. As a graduate student at Harvard University writing scientific research papers and a doctoral thesis, I revisited the importance of precision in writing. Medical and scientific writing employs a special vocabulary of scientific terms, abbreviations known only to others within the field, and a careful, well-organized tone.

Whether you are a professional writer creating highly technical and specialized documents, a journalist, an academic researcher writing for a scholarly audience, a novelist, or an author of a non-fiction book, you need to select the correct words to create clear and effective communication. Here are some ideas that have helped me fit the words to the occasion:

  1. Choose precise words. Resist the temptation to embellish your writing with multiple adjectives and adverbs. Choose “sprinted” over “quickly ran” and “coral” over “deep orangish pink”. Concise, clear writing makes it easier for your reader to follow your message. When you do insert an adjective, make sure it enhances the thought you want to convey. Even in a novel or memoir where you must describe the setting of your story to capture your reader’s interest, edit out superfluous sentences that do not advance the plot.
  2. Listen to the rhythm and flow of your sentences. Writing poetry teaches you to pay attention not only to the meaning of words, but also to the sound of words. Some lessons from poetry can improve prose. If you are deciding between two words that both carry a similar meaning, choose the one whose syllables improve the rhythm of your sentence. To draw your reader into a scene where characters experience fast-paced action, keep your sentences short. To transport readers to a bucolic setting in an historical novel, indulge in writing an opening paragraph of long sentences with descriptive clauses.
  3. Create a consistent tone. Scholarly writing has a consistent tone with logically structured paragraphs and a detached viewpoint creating a sense of objectivity. A “How To” book reads quickly, dispensing friendly advice on a given topic. A chapter in a novel or memoir describing a difficult time in a person’s life usually carries a somber, reflective tone. Pay attention to the connotations of words to create the right tone for your article or book chapter. When writing dialogue for a character, choose words that let the personality of the character shine through. As the character develops and grows throughout the book, allow his or her word choice to reflect those changes. In a non-fiction book with an overall formal tone, you can intersperse illustrations that carry a lighter, informal tone to break up the reading difficulty and keep your reader engaged. Think about what tone is appropriate for your writing in the early stages of your project as you are developing your outline.

What techniques do you use to fit the words to the occasion?

Finding Your Voice as a Writer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Speaking with a Microphone

At a writer’s conference or in an exchange with your literary agent, you might hear the admonition to find your voice as a writer. You will quickly recognize that locating this important item is the key to defining yourself as a professional writer, launching a successful writing career, and attracting readers.

As you seek to differentiate yourself from other writers and find your own style, your voice might feel elusive. Unsure of how to proceed, you may be tempted to echo the style of your favorite author, or try on a variety of writing styles in an attempt to find the best fit for you. However, your voice is an extension of who you are as a person. To a certain extent, your voice finds you as much as you find your voice. Consider how your voice as a writer arises naturally from your unique perspective, your particular audience, and your principal message.

1. Your unique perspective: Every writer brings a special blend of skills, life experience and creative ideas to each writing task. If a group of five writers sat around a table working on an article for a magazine using the same requirements and editorial guidance, I would expect five very different finished articles to emerge. For example, a writer with a science background might take a logical, structured approach to a subject, where a writer with a theatrical background might add more emotion. A writer who spent many years teaching history at the college level would probably include background material to give a historical context to the subject matter.

2. Your particular audience: A novice writer might dream of his or her words reaching a wide general audience, such as anyone passing by the best-selling books display in a Barnes & Noble store. However, most writers appeal to a certain segment of the book-reading population, often to people who are similar to the writer. A naturalist will likely attract readers who love spending time outdoors. Beyond simply thinking about the marketing of your books, think about who you are most likely to influence with your work. Will your writing reach young parents, new retirees, or college students? Is your writing complex or easily accessible? As a Christian writer, are you writing for someone new to the faith or a lifelong believer? Once you understand your particular audience, you can choose words and illustrations most effective for your readers, thus defining an aspect of your writing voice.

3. Your principal message: At the intersection of your passion and your experience, your principal message develops. You will feel most fulfilled as a writer when you write about topics that matter the most to you. Your readers, in turn, will sense your interest and excitement. You will produce your highest quality work when you write in your area of expertise. When writing articles for publications to augment your work as an author, try to choose topics that complement the messages that readers take away from your books. This focus will help you build a loyal base of readers and maintain a consistent writing voice.

What has helped you find your voice as a writer?

 

Becoming Social Media Savvy

Social Media Sign Web Globe

The World of Social Media

If you want to become a published author in today’s world, you need to embrace social media. Some aspiring authors may be very comfortable with social media and already have a large and successful online platform. However, many people preparing to write their first book may have a platform established in another way, such as through teaching, speaking, or published articles, and the world of social media may be foreign to them.

Here are a few tips for new authors looking to expand their social media presence:

  1. Consider your overall social media needs. Most new authors have careers in addition to their writing. While in many cases your writing may be an outgrowth of your career, sometimes the social media needs of your career may conflict with the social media needs of your writing platform. Consider how you can achieve a workable compromise between the two. Perhaps you work in a career where a limited social media presence based solely on professional accomplishments would be ideal. However, your writing platform may thrive if you develop a more personable social media presence that lets your readers share in some details from your daily life. Maybe you can connect with work colleagues on a platform such as LinkedIn, while using Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, and Google+ to connect with readers. Find what works for you, and modify your social media presence as necessary.
  2. Create layers of social media connection. Before deciding to become an author, you may have used social media as a means of connecting with friends and family. Now you find that your literary agent and your publishing house want you to connect with readers through social media. Connecting with readers requires a public social media presence. However, privacy controls on social media sites such as Facebook allow you to keep your posts to friends and family private while creating new posts for the general public. Using privacy controls, you can create layers of social media connection, sharing photos of your children with close friends and family members while sharing photos of book-signing events with the whole world. You might want to create a Facebook page with all posts public to connect with readers, while using your Facebook profile to connect with friends. However, consider leaving some posts from your Facebook profile public for readers who find you through a Facebook search.
  3. Adapt your social media strategy to stay current. All social media sites are constantly changing, especially platforms such as Facebook, where signs around the company’s campus remind employees that “this journey is only 1% finished”. After a major update on one of your social media sites, check privacy settings, and revisit your approach to social media. Is there a great new feature that you should start using? Should you publish more videos, or schedule posts for a different time of day? As an author, your journey in the world of social media is only 1% finished. Learn from your past experiences on social media and the wisdom of other writers, and create fresh content using new tools and the latest technology.

What tips do you have to share with other writers on becoming social media savvy?