A note to help non/first-time writers and indie publishers
This letter offers some basic ideas for anyone who is a beginning writer that have trouble getting their words from their heads into an essay or book because they’re better verbal communicators than writers, or haven’t been exposed to college writing classes, or want to toss all of that nonsense anyway. SOme of it may be useful to small and indie publishing houses too that want to support their emerging writers to keep their projects on track.
As many of you may have noticed that there are a LOT of writers who have never done grassroots work and can only talk about it from a distance, but there are even more organizers who have decades of experiences , analysis and histories to share that we never get to learn about from. It’s a travesty for all us in missing that wisdom. For many activists and organizers there is a lot of frustration in not being able to translate those ideas into printed words. To see writing through though is going to take some extra care and more engagement than just getting a publishing deal or light editorial feedback from publishers. Many first time writers or people who never even thought of writing their ideas or lives down, needs some direct participation from an active editors and publishers, as well as some alternative tools that will help us to get our words down. Extra hands involved more heavily and outside the box tools are critical.
I speak from firsthand experience where in writing Black Flags and Windmills. I not only was writing a book, but learning how to write-technically- and to find a voice that was mine in the printed word. I had an editor at PM who guided the big picture of the book, but I 'hired' a friend to actually take me step by step through the process. Asking me about what I meant when I said something or pointing out that I said the same thing in two places, then combining them. This editor really helped me shape rough ideas into concrete outlines, chapters and sections while also noticing and reinforcing where my emerging writing voice was taking shape.
I know there are long histories of anthropologists doing audio histories, but are there ways that these tools and techniques could be used to help non/first time writers ?
Since then, as an editor, trying to get other 'non-writers' , first time writers, and people who are talkers (myself included) to get pieces down. I have assimilated some ideas and techniques that may be helpful to others. These are some rudimentary techniques and tools I have used or appropriated to see writings emerge since it’s a challenge for many of us.
These are in no particular order. I hope they can be helpful. Take what you want and leave the rest.
Conduct interviews with the writer. Verbal communication can get people to talk about things they wouldn't write, or in ways they would not write them. It’s a standard technique that’s been used in oral history projects. I often use interviews, both written and verbal, as foundations to write pieces.
I often use written interviews to make me write a thought out longer response that can be many paragraphs to say what I want to within the pages.
With verbal interviews I have had them transcribed, then take that text as a foundation to write a much more detailed essay or chapter. Once either form of interviews (written or verbal) are in text I may even add questions not originally in the interview so that it prompts me to talk about other tangentially related topics or ideas. I let the editor sort it out after that.
Have verbal communications transcribed. Use talks or interviews the activist/organizer has done in the past and have them transcribed. This is another effective tool for turning their verbal communications into written words.
Pair the writer with an editor that is available to them who can and will actively engage the writer in day to day smaller developments, feedback, writing development and editorial decisions almost like a writer coach.
Being a first time writer is a lot like someone needing and going to a lawyer the first time. A first time client hears the lawyer say' I work for you', but if a client has no idea what questions to ask, or how it all works its not helpful and you get less results.
Help a writer develop outlines to at least frame what they think they want to talk about. I know this is rudimentary. But then as the work develops throw it away and develop it as the vision of the project becomes clearer.
Give them tips, tools, techniques on writing while the process is happening. It doesn’t have to be the most technical ever, but a little can help in understanding how to put it together, ways to find their own voice, or how to say things more simply-instead of verbosely. A piece of sage writing advice that I got that carried me a lot at the beginning was to pick a writer or two with a distinct voice and emulate them, even as you make it your own. Another instance is when my editor would take a sentence or paragraph and ask me ‘can you state this with less words?’ It would help me to think more clearly in how I wanted to express myself.
There is a huge history of people who are talkers being paired with more developed technical writers to help them get their story out while still maintaining their voice. Former Black Panther Geronimo Ji Jaga's book 'Last Man Standing' was a great example of that.
Another possibility is to have a writing collaborator to co-author pieces. Before embarking on a book I had done this with articles in the past. It helped me to gain skills and to not have to do all the heavy lifting in writing since it was shared. I still collaborate today on the occasional essay. I find this method good for time constraints and sharing voices too.
Many first time writers don’t have any idea how long it takes to produce 30-100 thousand words. My experience has been we all over or under estimate timelines. Set some timeline goals, but be realistic in allowing for writer growth as well as the project itself.
Actively encourage first time writers to write as much as they can on the topics within their books, even if its saying the same thing multiple ways with redundancies within paragraphs. Writing can be a process for verbal communicators. Write as much as possible then let the editors sort it out.
Encourage new writers to break books down into smaller increments by chapters; Seeing it as a series of smaller parts or essays for example.
Many of us living under capitalism, often carry a lot of internal trauma from just living. Activists sometimes carry additional trauma due to direct conflicts with Power either from confrontations in the streets or actions,but also from an activist culture where there is often a lack of support for self-care . Writing about our experiences and reflecting in personal ways can be healing, but can also bring a lot of deep hurt feelings to the surface. I saw in my own writing that sometimes I would begin to write about some event and I would stall. I would cry , or feel depressed and couldn’t commit these emotions and events to words. Eventually I would process it all and be able to write them down; it just might be days, weeks or months later. When I was stuck like that I was encouraged by my editor to take a break. to write or eidt on other parts of the book instead of trying to push through the emotional difficulties.