Women Writing Women

Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival

I spent a recent Saturday at the Symposium of the 2017  Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival,  an annual event run by the Women’s Club in Sydney. Its theme this year was Women Writing Women.  An intimate festival, held in beautiful rooms overlooking Hyde Park, its limited numbers allow for easy mingling between writers and readers. This year, it drew such well-known writers as Delia Falconer, Tegan Bennet Daylight and poet Kate Middleton, launching her most recent collection, Passage (Giramondo, 2017).

Helen Garner – a polarising force

Dr Bernadette Brennan started the day with her fascinating biography, A writing life, Helen Garner and her work (Text 2017). On discovering that there had been no in-depth study of Garner’s oeuvre, despite a writing career spanning over forty years, Brennan changed her mind about doing a ‘bit of a saunter’ through the ideas Garner generated, and gave herself up to rigorous biography. Given complete access to the notes, letters and journals that Garner had produced over this time, she found it a revelation. Amongst the papers was 25 years of correspondence between Garner and her early publisher Hilary McPhee, of McPhee Gribble.

Bernadette talked fluently and engagingly about the polarising nature of much of Garner’s work – is she a champion of women’s voices, or the opposite? Is she a fiction, or non-fiction writer? Brennan brought out the importance of Garner’s taking on taboo topics such as menstruation, childlessness, bodies and sexuality, and the shame and guilt they can engender. Whatever side of the debate a reader falls on, Brennan’s book is an overdue tribute to the importance of Garner’s contribution to Australian literature.

Writing real women and inventing fictional ones

The day included panel discussions on writing real women, and writing fictional women. Dr Karen Lamb brought us some pearls from Thea Astley’s life in her biography, Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather (UQP 2015), another writer whose contribution to Australian letters had not received due recognition. Who would have known that she watched The Bold And The Beautiful every day, or her particular genius for ‘one-way intimacy’?

On fiction writing, Tegan Bennet Daylight drew us into the creation of her characters – fragments, pieces of herself and others are broken off and, fertile, these will grow in a new setting. Laughter followed her observation that though she would never lift an entire real person to place in her writing, this rule may be forsaken if it’s ‘really good – there’s a wobble in every writer’s moral character!’ Her new book, Six bedrooms (Random House 2015), is a collection of short stories, revisiting teen years – that scorched period where, once passed, we slam the door behind us. She asks, can children escape their backgrounds?

The writer’s lonely life? Not necessarily!

The support of women within the writing community for each other was beautifully illustrated by Lisa Gorton and Kate Middleton’s friendship. When they feel their work is ‘unpublishable’, when the self-doubt rears, they often turn to each other. Gorton’s new novel, The life of houses (Giramondo 2015), takes familiar places and hidden spaces and muses on the powerful relationships between what is seen and unseen, known, or possessed.

The day ended with a glorious reading from members of the Rose Scott Festival committee of parts of Alana Valentine’s play, Letters to Lindy which recently ended a season at the Seymour Centre, Sydney. Alana introduced the reading with a funny and moving account of working with Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton. It was Lindy’s sense of humour which relieved the hurt and pain, the ‘transmitted trauma’, that came in writing it. Lindy still receives over 1000 letters each year, most regretful of things they had once believed. Valentine ended with the observation that theatre is a communal act. In bringing communities together in a public space, allowing for reflection both individually and in relation to each other, it is greater than the sum of its parts. These shared experiences can be used to foster growth and social change.

The Rose Scott Women Writers’ Festival is now formally partnered with the Jessie Street National Women’s Library, where I volunteer in writing and editing its quarterly Newsletter. I look forward to attending many future Festivals.

 

Improve your writing — 6 steps to better outcomes

Anybody can improve their writing. Good writing is a combination of mechanics and artistry and it can be learnt.

This short course provides some fundamental steps that can improve your writing dramatically. From short notes and emails to long proposals or submissions, you can learn how to get better outcomes with written communication. The six steps are:

  1. Generating
  2. Organising
  3. Drafting
  4. Revising
  5. Editing
  6. Proofreading

Note these steps down somewhere you will be able to see them and mentally tick off each one as you go.

#1 Generating

Generating is drawing together the material you need to write your document. It is both a brain dump and a research exercise.

It is an essential part of getting started. There is a relationship between clear thinking and clear writing. In generating your material, you are beginning the process of clarifying your thoughts about your document.

And starting from nothing is hard! Staring at a blank screen, cursor blinking, is enough to put anyone off. Suddenly you realise you need a cup of tea, or you remembered you were going to check your bank statement, or tweet something. Maybe that email you’ve been waiting for has arrived. It’s easy to submit to procrastination without your notes and materials around you.

I like to do certain things to keep me on track. You might like to try these or find other methods that work best for you.

Locate your resources

I start by finding all the documents that I already have that I will be drawing on. They may not all be relevant, but it is good to start with more rather than fewer resources. I either print these out, or have onscreen, arranged so I can see relevant sections.  On your hard copies, highlight relevant sections for quick reference.

Then do the research you need. What are you missing? Identify gaps.

Make notes

Thinking about the three questions above, start to make notes. I like to make these on a new Word document onscreen, but you can use paper. Write down words, phrases, points to remember. Write everything down, even if you think it is unimportant.

There are no wrong thoughts here. Everything that surfaces is useful. Remember that it is much easier to craft what you are trying to say once you realise what it is that you don’t want to say.

Underline or bold words that you see as the most important—these are the key concepts and will help you organise your notes.

Brainstorm

As part of generating, do a few brainstorms. Take a clean piece of paper and write down an answer to each of the questions above (purpose, audience, tone) in the centre of the page. Around this central idea, write down anything that comes to mind. These are your supporting ideas and they will also have off-shoots.

For instance, if you are writing a submission seeking a favourable response from a government department, you may write: ‘satisfy outstanding questions,’ and then around that, you may note the gaps, inconsistencies, problems that you need to address. Refer back to your marked-up resources to jog your memory.

Draw on your resources

Go back to your notes, and start to flesh them out with supporting material. I like to copy and paste sections of supporting documents under relevant headings. Build examples and case studies here which add colour to your argument.

Then, when writing, instead of having to return to the whole source document, I use these excerpts when I want to expand on an argument or draw on an example.

If you are using resources written by other people, and want to quote directly or use large sections of their work, remember to note the URL, their name and publication details at the beginning. Attribution is vital and it is much easier to do this now than hunt around later for a source document.

Now you have a set of notes, you are ready to begin organising. This is the second process step.

#2 Organising

Organising your notes is when you begin to sharpen your thoughts. As writers, we need to be able to answer these questions about the text:

  1. What is this document’s purpose?
  2. Who is the audience?
  3. What is the right language and tone?

When you are clear on these points, you will be ready to draft some powerful words. So, to take the first question.

1. What is the purpose of this document? 

Is it to advocate a position? Inform? Instruct? Warn? Whatever its purpose, there are a few things to get right.

  • Set the scene for the reader. Explain the background and provide some context. This helps their understanding. Once you have that, your ability to drive your point home increases.
  • Make it clear early on what, if anything, you expect the reader to do. If you are inviting a response, repeat your invitation at least twice – at the beginning and at the end.
  • If that response is necessary within a defined time, make the timeline crystal clear. School notes have to be some of the worst performers here—pulled out from the bottom of a school bag, the first thing any parent wants to know is, When is it due? Put it upfront!

The main idea

Looking at your notes, jot down the main idea, the key element.

Once you have done this,  roughly group together your other thoughts and notes according to topic. What belongs together? Group these supporting ideas under loose headings. These are not sequential, but overlapping. Go back and forth, adding and moving the pieces around. It is like a jigsaw puzzle.

Once you can see the content more clearly, check for things that you might have forgotten. What else could you add?

Prioritise

Allocate a priority, a ranking, to each of the supporting ideas. Now you have an ordered list from your notes which will form the structure of your draft. What you have now is a system.

2. Who is the audience? 

When you start thinking about your reader, you are conducting an audience analysis. This is a key part of communicating.  It’s all about the reader. Keep this front and centre while organising your notes.

Think about these questions?

  1. Who are they?
  2. What do they need?
  3. Where will they be reading?
  4. How will they be reading?
  5. What is the attention span of your audience?
  6. What is its technical knowledge?
  7. Where are they getting their information from now?
  8. What do they need to know (to do their job)?

Are they going to be a reluctant reader? Are they reading for fun, to find something out, or to be able to do something?

3. What language and tone is right for the audience and purpose?

Finally, once you understand your audience, you will be able to adjust the tone and language to be suitable. You are the best judge of this but it’s a good idea to run it past a colleague or friend if you have any doubts. We get too close to our subject matter sometimes and forget how it may appear to fresh eyes.

Now you’re ready to draft!

#3 Drafting

 Shapeshifting ideas

We don’t know what we’re going to say until we write it down. One minute, in our heads, it all seems so clear. Then we try to capture it.

Drafting is when you put your thoughts into words—on paper or on the screen—and you start to see them clearly. This is the beginning of communicating in writing, not the end.

Some martial arts discipline

In my sport, taekwondo, you learn basic techniques as a white belt and apply them throughout the curriculum. These techniques are the foundation of a strong, disciplined practice and will take you to black belt.

Similarly, a sentence, a paragraph and a story (be it creative fiction or corporate proposal) share a basic structure: they have a beginning, a middle and an end. They each start something, carry it along and hand it over.

  • A sentence is one complete thought. It takes an idea and sets up what is to follow.
  • A paragraph is one complete topic. It introduces the main idea with an opening sentence, follows up with some supporting detail and then leads into the next topic/paragraph.
  • A story is a complex narrative, setting the scene with an introduction, following with a body of linking concepts, and bringing it together in the conclusion.

 Where to begin?

You’ve done some hard work already. You know your document’s purpose, audience and the right language and tone to use. You’ve organised your thoughts into logical sub-sections.

Now start at any point. Refer to your brainstorm notes and prioritised lists. Make some headings and write a few sentences. What’s next? Under another heading, write another few sentences. How does this whole thing start? Write that down.

Don’t worry about perfectly articulated concepts in this,  your first draft. In truth, they won’t exist until you’ve run through a few versions.

Don’t make your reader work too hard!

Communicating simply and clearly is not treating your readers like idiots. It’s not talking down to them and it doesn’t diminish your expertise.

Your reader will need they need their energy to understand the topic. If they struggle to understand your writing, you will have lost them.

  1. Short sentences – Use a mix of short and longer sentences, keeping most short (under 15 words). Experiment with breaking up a longer sentence into two or three short ones. See how easy it is to follow now.
  2. Active voice – Use the active voice, which clearly defines who is doing what using fewer words and with less scope for ambiguity. Compare:
  • Active – The technician followed the directions.
  • Passive – The directions were followed (by the technician). Too often, the important bit, the technician, is dropped off the end.

Cut the jargon – Minimise jargon and leave it out altogether when communicating with a general audience. Use any technical terminology consistently.

Explain terms, if necessary, or use common, everyday words.

Define all acronyms the first time they appear in the document (and use rarely).

Keep it simple – Keep your language simple. Research has shown that people who use complicated language, when simple words will do, actually appear less intelligent.

Remember, you want this to be read, to be understood. If using technical terms, ensure they match the audience. What is the level of knowledge assumed?

Next step — revising.

#4 Revising

I can see clearly now (the rain has gone)….

Revising is the process of finessing your draft. You will also see anything you don’t want to say, which is just as important as what you do.

Some tips for effective revising:

  1. Never delete while you’re still working on it. Cutting back is much easier than adding more content. Instead of deleting first drafts, make new versions, clearly named. You can trash them later.
  2. Spare words – create a new blank document just called ‘Words for xxx‘ and put in all the words that you have cut out. I often look over it if I’m getting stuck.
  3. Colour by numbers – Print out your document. Give each paragraph (each main idea) a number and then work through the document. Allocate each sentence or cluster of sentences the paragraph number where it fits best. This is often a surprising way to make new connections with existing material.
  4. Look for linkage – Look at the final sentence in each paragraph and see if it links to the first sentence in the next.

Revising is where you lay down a path for your reader. Unless you’re writing a thriller, allow them to see what lies ahead.

You are leading them towards a destination—your conclusion. The clearer the path, the quicker the journey.

Now you are ready to edit, the fifth step to clear writing.

#5 Editing

Once you have drafted and revised, it’s time to edit, and then to proofread. These are distinct tasks and vital to your document’s impact. Make sure you leave enough time to do these properly.

Although you will be editing throughout your writing and revising processes, there will come a point when you feel your document is pretty close to where it needs to be. Now, draw a line in the sand and stop revising. Take off your writer’s hat and put on your editor’s hat. Put yourself into the shoes of a new reader. Try to read it with fresh eye

Structural editing

Editing begins with a structural assessment. As the author, you will have done much of this in your revising process. You will have examined it for flow, comprehension and consistency and tried to remove ambiguous language and jargon.

As a new reader, does it flow together and make sense? Will they understand your conclusion? Will they agree with it?

Take this opportunity to clarify your meaning. Make final adjustments to paragraph order or opening sentences to bring out the document’s purpose and to eliminate any remaining clunky phrasing or repetition.

Identify where sense or meaning is obscured. Consistency in writing, especially business or operational writing, is essential. Check for consistent terminology of names and pronouns.

Scan every paragraph to see how many times you have said the same thing in different ways. This can detract from your message. Repetition is fine at the end of a point, to conclude and emphasise, but try to use the same language.

Copy editing

Once you have finished with the meaning, look at your document line by line and find and fix all the grammar, sentence construction, spelling and word use errors. Remember there may be some that your spellchecker will not pick up. Autocorrect technology is just an aide. Human error demands that rigorous, intelligent eyes scan printed copy. We’ve all seen examples of just how error-ridden a document can be, yet escape any robotic correction.

At the copy editing stage, format tables of contents, insert page numbers if you haven’t yet, and check consistency of your headings and subheadings. Apply captions to tables and figures throughout. Check references and citations. Ensure hyperlinks are working.

And finally, proofreading.

#6 Proofreading

Proofreading is a final quality check. If you need to make further changes to language or structure, you are not at the proofreading stage yet. Make sure you give yourself time to proofread separately.

When proofreading, stop looking for meaning. You are only looking for errors. Read each word distinctly and separately. This is difficult. Our brains are configured to take in strands of about six words at a time and make sense of them. This chunking of meaning is useful for comprehension but works against our ability to find errors in individual words.

I like to proofread on paper using a ruler under each line, but when I proof on-screen, I highlight one line at a time.

Close your door, put on headphones, do whatever you need to do to get into the right headspace. Finding errors after you have given a document the all-clear is a painful experience—and we’ve all been there.

Six steps to improve your writing!

These six steps will take your writing from basic, confused or error-ridden to a more sophisticated level. The ability to write well is within your capabilities.

Contact me for more writing advice at Your Second Draft and find me on Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter.

 

 

No Crazy Lady here—Rosie Waterland’s clear-eyed reckoning of her life

In Every Lie I’ve Ever Told (2017), Rosie Waterland tells stories from her ruptured childhood, first laid bare in her 2016 memoir The Anti-Cool Girl, interlacing them with intelligent, wickedly funny observations about being a woman today.

As the daughter of addicts, Waterland was neglected and abused; she went to 17 schools, lived with violence, and was hospitalised in a psychiatric ward. Where The Anti-Cool Girlis the story of her survival, this book marks a maturity that comes with self-knowledge. Waterland learns from her experiences and, in recounting her shortcomings and flaws, she asks us to think about ours. Her examination of grief, trauma, sex and relationships is evidence of a woman who does not flinch from introspection. Every lieis also the story of her love for her best friend, Tony, whose sudden death brought home to her sanity’s wafer-thin fragility.

 She opens each chapter with a lie she has told herself and others over the years and weaves serious discussion amongst her self-deprecating stories. I haven’t had bad sex since I promised I wouldn’t put up with it asks, ‘Has porn broken the brains of men?’ Her story about going to bed with a 21 year old who is shocked by her pubic hair should be required reading for millennials. In a follow up, she invites the reader into the bizarre and humiliating experience of laser hair removal.

It’s uncomfortable enough to have to get naked from the waist down, lie down on a table and spread your legs as far as they will go. But it’s even worse when you do that and the heavily made-up technician looks directly into your snatch and lets out a big, unimpressed sigh. “This is going to be difficult, she says, wincing now….”

Yet, she muses, the counter-argument is that ‘waxing your pubes is a powerful example of the autonomy you have over your body.’ How can women today work out who they are with so many contradictory messages?

Waterland struggled with eating disorders in her twenties. In her chapter on body image and thatFacebook photo, she asks again, Why is what we look like more important that what we do? But there isn’t time to think about answers in today’s 24 hour media-blitzed world. While her nude selfie caused a media frenzy, her accompanying considered examination of society’s skewed obsession with women’s bodies was all but ignored. It’s not new, but I’m so glad she’s asking these questions again, and to a new readership.

Just don’t be too fat, too skinny, too sexy, too prudish, too aggressive, too passive. Be a role model for all other women but be modest enough to never think you’re a role model. Have it all, but also admit that it’s impossible to have it all.

As a former writer for Mamamia, she used to be part of that world, ‘the Fast-Food Opinion machine’ but having taking a step back, she is now struck by the sheer volume of meaningless drivel, aka ‘content’, that it generates. She asks us to think about its harm— the cruelty of labelling people, of defining a complex life with a tag.

Waterland is acutely aware that her own change in attitude has come only after she has been personally hurt.

(I know – how narcissistic to only realise the error of my ways after I was the subject of media scrutiny. Scrutiny that I had participated in countless times. But I got there in the end, at least? I’m ashamed to say that’s the best I’ve got: I did get there in the end…)

After Tony’s death, she told people that she was ‘okay’, but she was drowning, not waving. Her subsequent breakdown and suicide attempt brought home the biggest lie of all—that her ‘mental-illness story was one of past recovery, not current struggle.’

 ‘Recovered’ means it’s over, I’m good now, I can talk about this because it’s only in my past. That girl was a crazy lady. This girl is fine. I’m okay.

Her acknowledgement of her vulnerability is a powerful contribution, both for those living with depression and anxiety and those caring for them. I read her book at the same time as Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love (Hamish Hamilton, 2016) where he discusses the human predilection towards delusion: we in the Western Anglophone world would do well to learn more about our character traits, our insanities which are deeply embedded in our psyches. Rosie Waterland’s clear-eyed reckoning of her life meets his challenge head-on. ‘Let’s all embrace failure. Let’s all accept that we can only be perfect at being imperfect. That’s about as close to ourselves as we’re ever going to get.’

Rosie Waterland (2017), Every Lie I’ve Ever Told, HarperCollins Publishers, Sydney.

First published in the Newtown Review of Books. And Rosie, a Newtown resident of old, liked it too.  Read more on her Facebook page.

 

 

 

Are your documents letting you down?

Good communication is always the responsibility of the communicator, not the person receiving it. You may not be getting the traction in the market that you deserve because of poorly structured documentation, sloppy content or confused sentences.

You are a writer (or can be)

Today, with roles merging into each other, we all have to be writers. Forget about there being two groups of people in the world—writers and non-writers.

Some people may start with more innate skill and, if they also love language and reading, these people may go on to become gifted writers.

But everybody can learn the core steps towards good writing.

It’s a process

Research into what writers actually do when they write has shown us that writing is a thinking process with a number of equally important steps. To convey the meaning sought and needed by our reader, we need to see our thoughts in writing, then think again, then write some more—thinking/writing/reading/thinking.

Whether it’s a letter to your local Member of Parliament, a prospectus for the sale of a million dollar business or a user guide, the process of writing is the same.

We can all become better writers through understanding and following the six process steps for clear written communication—generating, organising, drafting, revising, editing and proofreading.

I have developed training modules around these six process steps. These steps apply to any written communication, from an operations manual to a love sonnet.

Find out more…

It starts with thinking. If you would like to learn more about the relationship between clear writing and clear thinking subscribe to my better writing course and I’ll send you the first step—Generating.

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Digital respite—the power of solitude

Why do we fear solitude? Solitude from others or from being left alone with our thoughts?

It was Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and theologian who said, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’

I was reminded of this when I read of a study published in Science in which people chose to self-administer mild electrical shocks rather than simply be left alone for between 6 and 15 minutes with no other stimulation provided.

It seems that the people electrifying themselves were looking for a diversion to save them from their own thoughts. The alternative, that they were actually interested in the experience of being shocked is plausible, I suppose—it’s new, it’s different, and in a controlled way, it could be exciting, maybe—but I think the former is true.

I do know that choosing to withdraw from stimulation became a part of my life when I had young children—neither deliberate, not sought, but seeking this solitude became a form of unplanned, daily therapy.

Respite from the world

When children are in that high dependency period between zero and about eight, the demands are interminable. As well as the cooking and cleaning and the myriad other household tasks, parental involvement is required at mealtimes, bathing, undressing and dressing, story-time, more feeding, bedtime, lullabies, and maybe that’s it, maybe not, depending on the night. None begrudged. This isn’t a rant about the grind of parenthood. It’s just the reality of caring for small, dependent creatures.

By the time the kids were on their way to being asleep, and I could sit on the couch with a glass of wine, all I wanted to do was sit in calm contemplation. Even television filled my head with more noise, demanding that I keep up with its pace. I would usually open a book but find myself resting it gently back on my lap while I pondered something that had happened earlier. Since waking that morning, this became my first chance to just sit and think, with no need to respond, nor be alert. It became my sanctuary and my saviour.

Extolling boredom

Today’s unbroken connectivity and the unremitting supply of information with which to divert ourselves, parents are now told to idealise boredom. Kids should be allowed to be bored. They need to develop their ability to turn inwards, to develop their own resources, to rely on their imagination rather than being fed everything they might need. The world’s constant stimulation may be depriving them of building a bank of resources they can draw on later.

My kids have an endless supply of stimulation. I know that. They are children of the internet, or in Marc Prensky’s now famous term, true digital natives. But having stimulation on tap does not necessarily correlate to it being turned on, nor sought. I don’t think they’re harmed by it.

Can they sit quietly with their own thoughts? I think so. I’ve seen them all in various states of introversion. We are all adapting and going through an evolutionary rewiring to cope with the demands of the present.

Our changing needs

I read an article on whether the internet was making us stupid. The author’s internet was down and she’d taken her daughter to a library where they used the card indexing system to find books on the shelves for a school research project. Within no time, her daughter had given up, frustrated by the slowness and effort required for such patchy results. The author was asking herself what was lost, but I think this just tells us that certain skills have made way for new ones. I can’t sew. My grandmother sees that as a colossal failure. But I know that I have ten skills more useful to me than sewing.

Can sitting quietly be learned? The Atlantic article reporting on the electrical shock study concludes that contentment with sitting with only one’s thoughts can be taught. Perhaps we find a space for it when we truly need it. The popularity of yoga and meditation classes would seem to support this.

A place to find ourselves

Without even being aware of it, I snatched these moments in other parts of my day.  In the lunchroom once, a colleague noticed that I had been sitting still, not reading the magazines, nor talking, for ten or fifteen minutes. I remember her double-take and quick question: was I okay?

Resting my overloaded brain from more inputs allowed me to process what I was doing, what I needed to do, what I wanted to do, what I hoped to do, and whether any of this was possible.

Was I okay? Sitting still, freed of any demands was a glorious opportunity and I sank into it with gratitude. Try it sometime.

Newtown Review of Books

I wrote a review of Nike Sulway’s beautiful  book, Dying in the first person, for the Newtown Review of Books. Published today.

NRB is a fabulous publication for all people who love books. And it’s from my favourite part of Sydney.  I’m hoping to keep writing for them, so stay tuned.

Nike Sulway on the changing face of publishing

This interview was first published in an edited form in the May 2017 edition of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library newsletter

Publishing, the production and dissemination of books and the written word has been turned on its head by the digital revolution. I had the opportunity to talk with Dr Nike Sulway, an author and lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Queensland, on her views. Her recently published book, Dying in the First Person (Transit Lounge 2016) is a luminous study of the power of language.

JS: Do you think changes in publishing and the broader digital space, including social media have affected women’s voices: what we write, and what we read?

NS: I think the rise of digital publishing is a curious thing. Some have lauded it as a way for diverse authors to gain access to publishing previously denied by the ‘gatekeepers’ of traditional publishing houses, while others have noted that the internet more generally, and digital publishing as part of that world, replicate and even exacerbate some of the problematic structures of oppression in the non-digital world.

In the world of digital publishing, popularity matters more than quality and, perhaps as a result, marketing and public relations activities have become part of the labour that writers, including women writers, have to do in order not just to be published, but to be heard. This terrifies me in some ways: it’s clear to me that, if having a good marketing plan, a solid author platform, and so on, are the keys to literary success then the voices that will gain traction are not necessarily those with important things to say, but those who can make the most noise.

At the same time, I think that online spaces, and digital publishing, have provided many people who otherwise have not had access to a public platform, or the opportunity to publish and distribute their work, with those opportunities. And communities have grown up around those kinds of enterprises, and in tandem to them. These groups are largely well-intentioned and highly active hothouses of shared information and ideas, collaborative project-building, information sharing, and strategizing for change.

JS: What dangers, if any, do you see for quality, with the rise of self-publishing? Is there still a sense that without the mantle of the publishing house, publications are stigmatised? 

NS: It’s interesting, isn’t it, this idea that self-publishing will lead to a swamping of the marketplace with poor quality work. I think there are two ideas in that anxiety: one about the ‘swamping’ of the market, and the other about quality control.

I do think that there’s still a sense of stigma attached to self-publishing. It doesn’t have the same degree of respect within the writing and publishing world as traditional or mainstream publishing at this stage, with notable exceptions. I do think that access to the tools for self-publishing necessarily leads to the publication of work that is not necessarily well-edited or well-designed. We all know that the relative ease of self-publishing, particularly for digitally savvy westerners with access to the (new) tools of production leads to the publication of works that don’t meet the standards of traditional publishing. (But then, traditional publishing’s standards are neither stable, nor transparent, nor politically neutral. Nor do traditional publishers all share an agreed notion of what ‘good’ writing is.)

The biggest danger I see is one that faces both readers and writers, in different ways…[is that] it becomes increasingly difficult for readers to find the works that will enjoy and be stimulated or challenged by, and in becomes increasingly difficult for writers to connect with their readers and/or to sustain a meaningful career.

A flooded market means that the value of each individual work is at risk of decreasing (on a purely economic level), but the labour of producing an original work of fiction or non-fiction doesn’t change. Perhaps there’s an associated risk that writing, never a great economic prospect for writers, becomes increasingly an activity of the leisured class—those who can afford to spend time writing, and can afford the other more explicit costs of publishing. And that the working and non-working poor and disenfranchised are increasingly cut out of the writing market, rather than empowered to take part in it.

JS: Digital publishing is a minefield of ownership, control and appropriation. The ownership of words is a theme you return to in ‘Dying in the first person’. Do you think writers can translate experiences truly and show us who we are?

The book is very concerned with the relationship between language and lived experience, or reality. There is some sense, I think, in which language can only express what is expressible in language. A tautology, of course! I think that there are truths about what it is to be human that I’m not sure can be expressed in language …. I think language is an extraordinary technology. It can be beautiful and dangerous and powerful and majestic. But it isn’t everything. It can’t do what music does to an audience, to a body. It can’t do what making love does, or holding a newborn, or lying down in a field will do. It can capture, sometimes, some fragment of that experience, and raise an echo in you of your own experiences and dreams. It is harnessed to your imagination, and is part of the way you understand yourself, and the world, and others. But it isn’t all powerful. If we destroyed the world, which we seem determined to do, we couldn’t replace it with language.

I feel strongly that writing, good writing (!), is a process of participating in an ongoing and rather wild conversation that’s been taking place for centuries, with increasing volubility and energy. As writers, we beg, borrow, steal, adapt, collage and comment. So little of what constitutes writing is devoid of connection to the writing that’s come before. And no writing, I think, is devoid of a connection to time and place, culture and society. So I think all writing is a process of what translators refer to as the ‘bringing over’ of a set of images and ideas from one domain to another. The difference in writing is that you don’t bring over a single or cohesive idea or narrative: what you bring over to your side of the river, and construct there, is often mostly constructed of the flotsam and jetsam of what you encountered while swimming. What you got hold of, and what got hold of you.

So appropriation and intertextuality, collage and bricolage, are, I think, the native form of writing. It’s only when it’s done in an insensitive, arrogant, or appropriative way that it becomes problematic.

JS: Your character Ana craves anonymity in her deceptions, ‘to speak without being known’. The internet’s anonymity (be it a gift or a curse) allows people to hide now. Do you think it is liberating? Or like Ana finds, are people are still trapped but now within the limitations of their adopted identify? 

I think, like most aspects of human relationships, the ability to be anonymous can be both liberating, and dangerous. Like most of the things we can do, it’s how and why we do it that matters. Anonymity can be used to mask cruel, cowardly and harmful acts. But it can also be used to protect a vulnerable person from harm. Queer people historically and now often practice a kind of partial anonymity – being ‘in the closet’ – to protect themselves from various threats to their health and wellbeing. At the same time, being in the closet, and I’ve been there, can be incredibly harmful to the self. At the same time, we live in a culture that believes that being out and proud, refusing any form of anonymity or privacy or discretion, is always a good thing. I don’t share that belief. I think that various forms of anonymity can sometimes be a powerful and necessary form of protection, and sometimes used as a weapon.

So, for me, anonymity is neither good nor bad in itself, but is a strategy or tool that can be used, and has been used historically, for both good and bad purposes. To hurt and to protect, to cause harm and to prevent harm.

We need to talk about depression

I have just read Rosie Waterland’s book, The anti-cool girl, which captures with such precision the half-life of a person living with depression, with mental illness. Amidst the laugh out loud moments of life as a ‘houso’ in North Ryde, the pressing, the closing in, the self-sabotage resonate. It needs to be read, widely.

I lived a second-hand experience of depression through my brother: caring for him, trying to keep him alive through the fog of medication, alcoholism, weight gain, inertia.

I would circle back to stations to get him off a train, the one he’d promise to be on, and wait on platforms in vain. Two, three times. He’d lie in our spare room all day. My parents, my sister and I had no clue how to help him. When he died, it was a searing honesty that trying to keep him alive was the hardest thing we had ever done. We had failed, but now, amidst the grief, it was easier. That’s hard to live with.

What’s wrong with our society that we turn our backs on these sick people? Why do we value these lives less? He knew it would be easier with him gone, and without a decent support system to help him, to help us, it was. I have a tattoo on my ankle, a snake encircled around a tree of life. He was born in Hong Kong in the year of the snake and I was afraid that I would forget him.

Not long after my brother died, I met a woman whose father-in-law in Sweden had attempted suicide. He was incarcerated in hospital. He had care, therapy and sanctuary until deemed well enough to go home for short visits. He stayed for much longer. Our taxes wouldn’t pay for that, with our meanness, our blindness, our chosen ignorance. My brother had attempted to kill himself seven years earlier and was discharged from Emergency after two nights with a referral to a psychiatrist. Like he was in control of his decisions.

He was treated as an ‘individual’, although he wasn’t. Who amongst us is? His ‘right to privacy’ was paramount: his depression was his responsibility alone. It meant that my parents, his carers, were excluded from his medical treatment, his therapy. They were personae non gratis, in the eyes of the medical establishment.

Rosie’s account of having to rationalise to the triage nurse at A&E that, yes, she would kill herself if not admitted is our system in miniature: a bizarre Catch-22 of being sane enough to admit insanity.

While her life with a broken education at 17 schools, abandoned for days at a time, living with violence could be the polar opposite of mine, the frailty of human beings is universal. My best friend at school had alcoholic parents. They’d drink scotch at breakfast, so she raised herself. And spent lots of time at my house. Not that I knew anything at the time. So much is hidden.

Rosie Waterland found a way through in writing. She describes how she had read a vacuous article about exactly nothing and knew she could do better. Her published writing pulled her back and I was reminded of Marian Keyes’ account of her own depression and alcoholism. Like Rosie, Keyes, a bestselling Irish author, found that writing became a way of grounding herself, being able to see through the blackness around her, and reattach herself to life.

And my friend survived, grounding herself in a country which gave her the opportunities and home she had missed out on as a child.

My brother never found that thing that would bring him back. We need to listen to those who survive and reading Rosie Waterland is a brilliant start.

 

Self-publish?

The digital age has turned publishing on its head. Writers now have more options than ever before to get their voices out into the world. A writer can now publish a book professionally, find a respectable readership and be reviewed in mainstream media, all without the imprimatur of a publishing house. Whether or not they are heard – whether or not that is their goal – is another question, and one I’ll explore in another piece.

Joel Naoum, publisher, editor and founder of Critical Mass Consulting discussed self-publishing with a group of interested writers at the NSW Writers’ Centre on 7 April 2017 . I caught up with Joel later and we talked further about the new face of publishing.

The freedom of the digital era to publish new writers or new books by existing writers, without having to bow to strictures such as shelf space, has been liberating. The market is out there. Despite fears, people still want to read books and look for an immersive reading experience in a traditional mould – the long form book ­– without interactive websites, reading apps, or distracting hyperlinks. Genre fiction – with its high turnover – has found a natural fit with digital publishing and romance, particularly, is now more than 50 per cent digital.

The accessibility and cost-effectiveness of digital publishing is a logical destination for self-publishers. Critical Mass is an advisory service for writers who have written a book, or thinking about writing one, and are exploring self-publishing options. After working as an editor at Macmillan and then heading up its digital imprint, Momentum, he launched Critical Mass Consultancy to fill what he saw as a gap in the market. With writers wanting to put books into the public domain and the IT capabilities and platforms available, the missing links were connecting the two.

Marketing is the behemoth which forestalls many writers. Joel confirmed that so much of traditional publishing is the grind of marketing – copy, covers, blurbs, promotions – and shepherding the writer through the process. He acknowledged that the most successful self-published authors were either adept at this, or learnt quickly how to outsource it to professionals. Becoming a successful self-published author is akin to becoming a small businessperson – the most innovative, the bravest do well. That said, an authentic presence is essential. He encouraged writers to use platforms with which they were familiar and were most likely to suit their genre.

He agreed with my concerns that self-publishing has pushed these functions onto the writers, but more control over your authorial voice is no small compensation. The sense that the reading public is in danger of being swamped is certainly there but he is confident that the cream will rise to the surface. Advice on how to navigate that road to get the best book possible is probably a good investment.

 

Writing for outcomes

Here are the four parts of my persuasive writing masterclass in one article. Mix it up, take what you need. Your situation is unique and your appeal will be too.

 

#1 Facts

It was astonishing to hear a spokesperson from the Donald Trump camp question whether a ‘fact’ even existed anymore.

Her argument that ‘truth’ is in the eye of the beholder is a disturbing sign of the pervasiveness of spin, and it is complete rubbish. In the world that the rest of us inhabit, facts matter. While the Opera House can shimmer with a mermaid’s green scales during Vivid, its tiles are still cream and white.

In a relatively short piece directed to a general audience—it might be a blog piece, promotional copy or a direct appeal such as a letter—keep these points in mind.

  • Get it right. If you are wrong on something that a reader can verify with a few clicks on Google, your credibility is gone. Any interest that you may have generated will be wasted. If you know your product or service, and have something to shout about, this is easy. If research is required, find some verifiable sources (hint: don’t rely on Wikipedia)
  • Not all facts are of equal importance. Rather than crowding your piece with a mass of information, choose the facts that are most relevant to your argument and what your reader needs to know.
  • Don’t mistake facts for argument. You need both. Use your facts as a platform on which to build your supporting argument. Argument is the ‘why’ and provides powerful context.

 

#2 Understanding

Once you know what you want to say and can support it with the right facts, demonstrating understanding is critical. Your words need to ring with confidence. You are building trust with your reader.

If you are going to persuade, expect to defend. And you will find it hard, if not impossible, to defend an argument that you do not understand.

When writing briefs for the Premier of NSW as a graduate policy officer, I was expected to be able to explain anything that I had passed up the line. If I did not understand it, I needed to make the right calls to find out how it fitted into the bigger picture. What did it mean?

Understanding something operates on two levels.

Handling complexity

First, you need to know what you are talking about. Understanding the information is different from making sure your facts are right.

If you don’t understand it, neither will your reader and you have a snowflake’s chance in hell of persuading them to come down on your side.

Apply these rules:

  1. If there is complexity or ambiguity in your argument or in the resources you are working from, find another reference. Ask an expert. A CEO I worked for was never afraid of asking the ‘stupid question’. If you are unsure, others will be too. Trust yourself.
  2. Don’t let complex material languish on its own. Illustrate it with a story, or by expanding on the context. This will show your confidence with the subject. Confidence is catching.
  3. Think about the most rational outcome. Don’t be afraid to state the obvious. Even if powerful vested interests are dominating the debate, flagging the common-sense solution can be powerful.

Emotional understanding

You feel this. It has touched you. Appealing at a basic, human level will elicit a basic, human response from your reader. The gut.

Make it real. Include real events or scenarios. This does not need to be lengthy. In fact the shorter the better. An historian I once read called it ‘corroborative detail’. It will stick with the reader. Some things to remember:

  1. Give your reader a sense that you are a real person. How would they feel if they were in your place? Can you imagine and describe different outcomes?
  2. People, especially in bureaucratic organisations, are inherently conservative and afraid of change. What are your readers’ fears? Can you pre-empt them?

 

#3 Motivation—yours and theirs

The core of any half-decent piece of persuasive writing is the why. If you are looking for an outcome, you have to keep this front and centre. What will make your reader do what you’re asking? It’s both carrot and stick. These things will keep you on track.

Where is the power?
Even if you have influence and can wield it, this is rarely the best option. Especially not if you want to draw on it again. It is a blunt instrument and often resented. If you have any clout or leverage, use it sparingly.

Think about what will make your audience sit up and take notice. If you are not able to wield direct power, how will you get to them?

Stakeholders
Who has a stake in the outcome? The most effective strategy for getting something done, that you can’t do yourself, is to make the other party want it as much as you do. Once your problem is theirs too, you may find them willing to help.

When you have identified who is involved, think about their situation. If there is more than one, are they united, or do they have different objectives? Can you play one against the other? Remember, the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Find out who could be adversely affected by a decision. It might not be immediately obvious.

Where are they vulnerable?
If you want to change somebody’s mind, you need to know their pressure points. Their weak spots. If you don’t know, you can indulge their vanities, flatter them. While on one level we all know what’s happening when we’re being sold something, we still have an innate human desire to be seen, to be understood. Use this.

Pick your battles
How often would you make an appeal like this? Think about how badly you need it and keep your powder dry for these times. When I worked in grassroots advocacy, I’d have several tiers of appeal. First up was the killer approach. This was for a case that had our strongest support. I would write a personal, tailored submission that went to the heart.

But if I had pulled this on every one of my caseload, nothing I wrote would have been taken seriously.

Then there was the ‘individual but muted’ appeal which made the case without significant investment. Finally, cases that were less plausible or less serious received a more formulaic approach. Using language to signal your commitment gets the best result when you know your reader, but it is useful to manage workload in any high-volume environment. Set your own tiers and codes to escalate urgency.

Next steps
Your appeal will be stronger if you can follow up. What are the possible outcomes and how can you plan for them? How will your reader interpret your approach? Do they know what your next steps are too? Be one step ahead.

 

#4 Structure and tone

How you put your pitch together is crucial.

You need to get the structure and the language right if you want to turn your reader’s head and keep them looking. Don’t blow your opportunity for a result with poor construction.

The opener
Start strongly. You need to make an impression from the beginning. Imagine you have only 30 seconds of their time before they put your appeal aside. Maybe they’ll pick it up later, but maybe they won’t. Don’t take that risk.

Using what you know of your reader, think what would work best as an opener. A fact? A personal anecdote? A direct appeal? If you know what they are used to seeing, perhaps try something different. You want it to register.

Choosing and placing words
Keep your language as simple as possible. It does not talk down to your audience. Remember, you want this to be read, to be understood and to generate a response. If your subject is technically difficult, instead of tricking up language with jargon or density, give it space to let the reader reflect. The more complex the topic, the plainer the language needs to be.

Use a mix of short and long sentences. This allows the reader to absorb detail without being overwhelmed. A full stop is a chance to rest. The sentences should follow each other, linking logically. Similarly, paragraphs—look at the final sentence of each paragraph and make sure it links to the first sentence of the next. Keep paragraphs short and be sure to only introduce one concept or cluster of ideas in each.

No surprises
Let your reader see what lies ahead. Helping them to link the elements together draws them inescapably to the conclusion, your conclusion. Build your momentum. Repeating a phrase or term is a good way to do this. You want your reader to think ‘Yes,’ or ‘I see it,’ or ‘This makes sense,’ by the time they reach the end.

Keeping your reader onside means no surprises. You don’t want to trigger anxiety. And you are not writing a whodunit so leave your reader with closing words which recap your position.

No mistakes
Finally, keep it clean. Grammatical mistakes look careless. And you care. If you can’t be sure about getting this right, find a second opinion or a fresh set of eyes.