Book Blurbs and Pets

Book Blurbs and Pets
Terry Odell

Book Blurbs and Pets

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I’ve been with my current editor since my first Blackthorne, Inc. novel (2007), with only a couple of exceptions. She now has her own small publishing company, but has been kind enough to keep me on in a freelance basis. She asked if I would read one of her debut author’s upcoming releases and provide a one-or-two-sentence “blurb.” She said it was a romantic suspense, which is a genre I’m familiar and comfortable with.

Now, I don’t put much stock in author recommendations. I had to grovel for them for that first Blackthorne book, and dreaded doing it. I was an unknown with a couple of books out from a digital-first publisher. (No Amazon yet.) Who’d want to spend time on me? But grovel I did.

One author acquaintance said, “Sure. Send me three quotes and I’ll cobble something together.” Never even asked to read the book. Another said she’d read just enough to see that I knew what I was doing.

Nevertheless, because saying “No” has always been a monumental task for me, I agreed to go along with my editor’s request.

I was reading along, some hiccups due to my internal editor refusing to shut up, but overall, the writing was clean and easy to read. It was a little slow-moving for my taste, as the suspense element wasn’t brought in until later than I would have expected, but then … about ¾ of the way through the book …

The protagonist, who by now had received threatening emails and phone calls, came home to find a box on her doorstep. Upon opening it, she discovered the mutilated body of a cat. Not just any cat, but a stray she’d semi-adopted.

Mind you, this was not a serial killer, dark mystery/thriller type book. This was, overall, a romance with some suspense elements. And a mutilated cat.

Very early in my writing career (2004 according to my files), I attended my first writer’s conference. At a workshop given by the late Barbara Parker, she said she’d made the unforgivable mistake of having a mutilated cat show up in a box on the doorstep at the protagonist’s house. And, even worse, the protagonist had a young daughter. Parker said readers sent hate mail, and warned that killing a pet was an absolute no-no. Her book was a legal mystery, so her audience wasn’t romance-oriented, yet they still screamed.

I told her my manuscript for the as of then unpublished Finding Sarah included a character with 2 cats, and I had poisoned them (you’ll never know the delight you can light up in someone’s eyes until you holler between your office and the Hubster’s and say, “I need a way to poison a cat.”) My plan was to have one survive. The incident would 1) force my character to deal with emotions he’d denied; and 2) provide a critical clue for solving the overall mystery.

She gave me an emphatic “NO.” — Spoiler Alert— So, in the final version, both cats survived.

I passed this information on to my editor, who said she was warned against harming children or dogs, but nobody’d ever mentioned cats, and that she would bring it up with the author. Whether there are any changes remains to be seen.

At this point, I asked a couple of my best-selling authors of romance and romantic suspense friends what they thought. I knew my editor wanted my quote to appear in the soon-to-be-published book, but I was very uncomfortable putting my name on a book that would likely anger readers.

One said she refuses to blurb books anymore, saying there’s nothing to gain. (She also suggested I have my assistant be the one to tell my editor, but my dog can’t type.) The other author said “never recommend a book that you don’t love madly.” Until the cat incident, the book was good, but I wasn’t madly in love with it.

Ultimately, I told my editor I wasn’t comfortable putting my name on the book, and she said she understood, and another author she’d asked to read it said something similar.

All right, TKZers. Floor is open for discussion, either on the harming pets topic or book blurbs in general. I know of numerous authors, who when asked, “What do you read?” will say, “About all I get to read these days are books my publisher sends for blurbs.” Are their recommendations enough to sway you to buy books? Or do you think they’re writing what their publishers want to hear? If you were asked to blurb a book, where would you draw the line?


Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellAvailable Now

Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

How Web Content Writing Will Make You a Far Better Writer

Word of Warning: This is a long, drawn out post of nearly 6,000 words. It’s not that I went to a lot of work today to cook something new. No. Far from it. In fact, I’m really lazy at the moment and decided to regurgitate something I wrote a few years ago when I produced commercial web content articles full-time. Hopefully, this piece I published on my personal blog at DyingWords.net is still relevant and might be useful to other writers & readers who hang around the Kill Zone. BTW, this piece is designed to be scanned, not painfully read word-by-word. Here goes:

——

Web content writing is a different skillset than conventional writing. Most writers are taught to write linearly. We follow a rigid format flowing from basic idea through wordy and detailed exposition, then summarizing with forgone conclusion. I’m guilty of this. Likely you are, too. But it’s not how modern web writing goes.

The internet changed the game. The world wide web impacts every published piece you write. Fortunately, learning how to write effective website content makes you a more practical, productive, and prosperous writer regardless of your niche or genre. And understanding why proper web content writing is different will make you a far better writer in today’s digital world.

How do I know this will improve your writing? Because for the past 9 months, you haven’t seen much of me around the DyingWords blog. I’ve been busy learning a new skillset. That’s writing content for commercial websites. Working with my daughter, Emily Rodgers and her HealthyContentAgency.com online business, I’ve written over 350,000 words for 279 web content pieces. 87 have been longform articles averaging 2850 words. 192 have been shortforms between 500 and 600 in word count. This experience made me a far better writer.

I’m a far better writer because I’m forced to economize words and time while being internet friendly. I take foreign concepts (to me) and formulate them into understandable explanations with definite purpose. To get paid, my articles must inform, educate, or entertain readers. Deadlines are strict. Pieces have to deliver value for paying clients. They also have to be found on the internet. That involves accurate research, drafting in a search engine recognition format, and maximizing your proof/ship time. Although commercial web content writing is highly specialized, the techniques are also useful for writing novels and non-fiction.

Web Writing Techniques also Work for Novels and Non-Fiction

Learning web content writing is a large learning curve but definitely pays off. And I know it’ll pay off for you. If you let me show you how, I promise practical information on how to write professional webpage content and blog posts that’ll improve your overall writing skills. That includes purpose, clarity, and—most importantly—your productivity. This translates to pay. It means making money from freelance internet business writing if that’s your interest. Or, you can apply these constructive tips to any of your writings.

Writing good website content is not the same as producing old-style material for print magazine articles, news pieces, marketing hype, technical documents, or internal memos. Even if you’re already a successful novelist or have numerous publication credits in mainstream journalism, you’ll up your writing game by learning what’s required in producing today’s proper online content material. It’s especially relevant to bloggers and authors who host their own websites.

Here’s practical advice—not general theory—that’s guaranteed to improve your writing and make you a far better writer.

Understand What Makes Effective Web Content Writing

Web content writing is all about helping people easily understand and retain information on topics they’re actively seeking. It’s also about being found on the net. Good webpages for commercial application are carefully designed to give prospective buyers useful detail about products for sale or information offered. It’s not about direct selling, though.

The idea is to give readers sufficient reason to pursue actions without being pushy. It’s education. Not pure promotion. That might encourage a purchase directly online, visiting a physical retail site, or contacting the vendor directly to acquire a product, service, or information relevant to their needs. It’s also about giving readers a reason to stay on the site, return, and recommend it to others.

Writing effective web content is hard work. It involves three separate sub-skillsets employed in three equal parts.

Research is the first part of developing content. You can expect research to take over one-third of your project time. This is unavoidable as you’ll be given topics you have limited or no personal knowledge about. Then you have to make your words portray intelligent thoughts.

Science is the second part. You need to know how basic technology applies to building an article designed for Search Engine Optimization or SEO. It’s a skill beyond understanding Word or surfing the net. You have to work within Google’s rules of computer science.

Creativity is the third ingredient. You need to put researched material into a clearly readable scientific application that meets client needs. It must be original. It cannot remotely resemble plagiarism as Google will spot that instantly and punish your sins. Besides, your client is paying for fresh content—not cut & paste.

This is as close to a magic formula for web content writing as there is. It’s the combination of factors that resonate with Google, show your work, and let time-pressed readers stay with your article from start to finish. It needs to be relevant, readable, and retrievable. That takes some drilling down to pull off.

Website Content’s Goal is to be Found

There’s far more to effective content writing than setting a hook and reeling a fish. First, your bait has to be found. This is where Google comes in. Understanding how Google works is the key to knowing how to draft, formulate, and execute a web page or post that does its job. That’s to be discovered and convert readers into taking action. Fortunately, there’s not a big mystery around how Google’s search engine works.

Before taking an in-depth look at Google’s operation, let’s review the main elements of properly written web content. “Content” is the term for your combination of words that deliver a message. It also goes further to include everything you do to make a piece internet friendly. Years of writing experience can be good or bad for content writers. I certainly had old habits to break and lots to learn when I branched into building web content. But it’s made me an all-around better writer.

Good content writing is clear and concise. It’s aimed at a specific audience. Content writing is not the same as “copywriting” or “market writing”. These specialties are hard-sell focused. They’re meant to quickly persuade a defined target market into buying.

Product descriptions and feature/benefit lists are good examples of copywriting. Content writing takes a softer, rounded approach to conversion. Content writers are good explainers. We take difficult, complex concepts or mundane information and make it digestible.

Think USB — Unique, Specific, Beneficial

The acronym USB in web content writing doesn’t mean your flash drive though it’s sage advice to back your work up. USB is a framework to formulate your content so it works for your audience. Once you know the intent of your piece, you need the information to provide solutions for whoever is reading it.

For instance, you’re likely looking for the solution to being a better writer.  That’s why you’re reading this. There’s nothing for sale here. The information’s free. Specifically, I just want to share my unique experience for your benefit.

The best approach in helping others is to make sure all content is:

Unique, where it’s not ripping off other sites. It’s fine to convey the same ideas or general information but it has to dig into sources and be an original presentation.

Specific, where it’s not just a general overview of the topic. Rather, it’s non-general and specifically includes relevant information the reader can use.

Beneficial, where the content has some take-away value. It’s more than just telling the reader. It’s showing them something and allows them to take action.

Content writing is entirely strategic. Before anything is written, content writers develop a series of objectives that form critical goals. This includes a researched understanding of the target market and material specific to the topic. This can be time-consuming. However, it’s crucial to success. It’s specific to the audience and the goals of the client who commissioned your writing the piece.

Before Writing Web Content, You Need to Consider:

Who your target audience is including gender, age range, location, and education.
What the website visitor’s mindset is when they enter the site.
What the audience can learn or achieve from the visit.
What the primary business goal is.
What the secondary business goals are.

The universal truth of all web users is they require something when they visit a website. They have a need. Your job as a content writer is to fill it. It’s vital—absolutely critical—that content not be written for content’s sake only.

It has to be clear, engaging, understandable, and useful to them. Good webpage content has strategically placed keywords and key phrases but they can’t be so artificially stuffed that they won’t make sense or read smoothly. That’s a turn-off and a sure-fire recipe for click-aways.

Remember, people normally visit websites for one of three reasons:

  1. Information
  2. Education
  3. Entertainment

What you’re doing with content writing is solving problems for people. Knowing your target audience lets you develop the style and breadth your content will take. This is where your personal voice makes a huge difference in setting the tone. It’s like the difference between talking to a bubbly teen and conversing with a pompous Ph.D. It depends on who you’re writing to.

The approach is to be yourself, yet be in tune and respectful with the audience you’re speaking with. It’s also extremely important to consider how internet users or online audiences prefer to read. Internet audiences scan content. They don’t really read.

Consider How Online Audiences Read

Capturing an online reader’s attention is challenging, to say the least. Chartbeat, an internet analytics service, reports that 55 percent of visitors spend fewer than 15 seconds on a webpage before they click away. And Internet Live Stats state there are more than 900 million active websites on the net with 3.5 billion Googles searches done per day.

Getting the right reader to find your content is tough. Having them stick around long enough to absorb your information and then take the desired action is even tougher. We’ll discuss getting them onto your webpage in a bit. Right now, let’s talk about how online audiences read.

The vast majority of internet users don’t actually read webpages. Not in the conventional word-by-word sense that novel or magazine article readers do. Internet readers are conditioned to scan material. Their eyes dart about the page searching for relevant words suggesting links to information they’re after.

This is the main factor that makes web content writing so different from composing and constructing content for printed publications. Google Analytics says that 79 percent of web readers scan instead of closely reading. They skip what they perceive as unnecessary as they’re literally hunting for what they regard as useful. Subconsciously, you’re doing this right now.

Studies repeatedly show scanners take in the first two or three words in a sentence. They ignore the center, then grab the final few words. Scanners do this with paragraphs, as well. But scanners are highly attracted by breaks in information blocks done by imbedded formatting.

Highly Effective Imbedded Formats Appealing to Scanners are:

—Text formatting with bolds, italics and underlining
—Short paragraphs and abrupt sentences
—Word count applicable to subjects
—Highlighted paragraph headers
—H1, h2, h3, h4, heading tags
—Bullet and numbered lists
—Still and video images
—Tables & graphics
—Color variation
—Block quotes
—Whitespace
—Visual flow
—Hyperlinks

Effective content writing is formatted with Google in mind. Don’t think you can trick Google when you’re writing webpage content. This search engine has been around too long and is far too sophisticated for that. You need to understand how to work with Google through Search Engine Optimization or SEO.

The trick is to take SEO principles and work them into your format. You optimize content to get Google’s attention. That means everything you do. Format. Links. Images. Key material. Paragraphs. Sentences. Grammar infractions. Headers. Quotes. Colors. Lists. Bolds. Bullets. Italics. Underlines. Tags. Whitespace. And Words. It’s a holistic concept and it works.  All information must be relevant to your topic information. You need to draft it into engaging words that are attractive to Google. It’s the world’s largest search engine and you have to feed Google what it likes.

How Google Finds Attractive Content

They use Googlebots. Ever hear of them? Well, Googlebots have heard of you. Googlebots are probably the most important information invention since the big bang of the internet itself. They’re responsible for making Google a multi-billion dollar international conglomerate.

Think of the internet as a beach and the web content piece you’re writing as a grain of sand. You need to make your writing grain shine among billions of grains in the sand. You do that by understanding what the Googlebots are looking for and position yourself to be found.

Search engines like Google constantly look for good content to hit on. That’s the purpose of their existence. They want to help people find what they’re looking for on the web and report it on Search Engine Response Pages or SERPs.

Inserting Key Words and Key Phrases

Googlebots are incredibly sophisticated. They’re able to filter through trillions of information bits and sort what they feel a Googler truly wants. It’s all about determining relevancy to the end user. Google’s search engine does this partly by identifying keywords and key phrases the searcher inputs.

It could be something like writing web contentweb writinghow to write effective website contentproper web content writing, writing content for commercial websitesweb content piecesweb content writinghow to write professional webpage content and blog postsimprove your overall writing skillsmaking money from freelance internet business writingtips on web content writingwriting good website contentproper online content material and practical advice.

Or, it could be any combination of these 27 different keywords that were carefully selected and strategically placed as key phrases in the first 7 paragraphs and 457 words of this article. That’s a total of 62 combined words for a ratio of 1 in 7 or 14% of the opening content being key material and I bet you didn’t recognize the technique on first read. And it’s not “keyword stuffing” because the written content is readable, informative, offers value, and not obviously repetitive.

That’s the difference between artificially-stuffed material that Google passes over and properly written content that Google recommends. If Google senses you’re salting or stuffing key material just for the sake of tricking the search engine into giving your piece a higher SERP rating, it’ll send you to the back of the same bus plagiarism hitched a ride on. You might as well walk than mess up key material.

What are the Best Web Content Keyword and Key Phrase Practices?

—Keys sound best when natural and not “stuffy”
—Make sure keys read naturally for the human audience
—Keys don’t have to be exactly as the best ratings indicate
—Main keys should appear within the first two paragraphs
—Imbed the best key in metadata description
—Keys should appear twice if they don’t seem repetitive
—Use keys in titles and subheadings
—Use variations of keys throughout the content
—Integrate short keywords and longtail key phrases
—Question-based keys are effective but tricky to write
—Question-based keys work best in headings
—Web content keywords and key phrases work well as bullet points

Don’t make your keywords and key phrases too rigid. “Stop words” are just fine in planning your keys. They’re the filler and connector words like “what”, “are”, “the” & “and” in the preceding subheader question. Google will skip right by them and for good reason. They’re looking for good, readable content and the header “Best Web Content Keyword Phrase Practices” just seems a bit stiff and salted.

The trick to keywords is carefully researching what your target audience is looking for and what they’re likely going to plug into the search bar. In this case, I’m specifically targeting writers who want to improve their skills by applying techniques used in producing excellent online content. I’m betting that many readers host their own blogs/websites and want to up their traffic.

I’m also doing shameless promotion by adding links to Emily’s HealthyContentAgency.com business and my resources page at DyingWords.net. Don’t be afraid to page through our sites and get tips on writing website content writing. And feel free to follow the hyperlinks to other great web content.

Google Loves Hyperlinks as much as Keywords

Google also loves fresh, original content that has value. Google’s technology is approaching spooky artificial intelligence, and it can instantly recognize a good piece of content that will help the user. It also knows what’s shit, clickbait, and plagiarized. Google’s primary mission is to search the net and be helpful. Hyperlinks from one good site to another are highly helpful as long as they’re staying on the same relative trail.

Hyperlinks or backlinks really unlock the power of the internet. Search engines recognize this information sharing device that you’ve helped them with and will reward you with higher rankings as long as your imbedded links are to other credible content. Links don’t have to be just to written content on websites. Google loves visuals so YouTube links, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever site you can work into being relevant is fair game.

An excellent example of relevant linking is to Google itself. Google AdSense has a thing called Keyword Planner. It a key phrase analyzing tool where you plug in and play with key material you suspect may be best for your content. It’ll give you advice and ratings on what works best according to Google’s search history. Here’s a trade secret. You can also do similar key material searches at Amazon who has the world’s second largest search engine. And a little known but super site is SERPS that works great in rating key words and phrases.

Relevant hyperlinks are a value-added feature in good web content that works to Google’s favor. You’ll increase your overall SERP performance by using valid hyperlinks just as you’ll increase SERP standings by taking a holistic approach to building the entire content in your piece using proper web content techniques. It’s the entire composition that Google assesses and a real case that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Googlebots Look at the Total Content Package

Primarily, they love to find information that many people will find useful. Google measures this with a complex algorithm that calculates many details—website visits, page views, lengths of stays, links to other similar content, social media likes—and recommends relevancy of content. It becomes a vicious circle where good content generates large traffic and this cycle grows with Google’s promotion.

Goggle recognizes the entire picture of how web content pieces are formatted. They see and rate formatting, graphics, headers, sentence and paragraph structures, bullets, graphs, whitespace, images, and highlights. Google’s not just looking for a factual read. They’re looking for fun, too. Google knows how internet readers scan, and they want to recommend the best overall reading experience.

And there’s speculation that Google’s becoming a Grammar-Nazi. They’re rating style and substance as well as spelling, grammar, and proper punctuation just like Amazon is now doing when you upload a manuscript. That’s why it’s so important your writing be shipped at the highest standard—a modern internet standard—because Google is watching how you’re optimizing its search engine.

Search Engine Optimization for Google Content

Google’s trade secrets are seriously guarded. Its technology is ever-evolving but generally involves four separate areas that good web content writers need to know. All four should be addressed when drafting a web content page. That applies to all forms of content—short and long form pages, feature articles, static web pages, and even your books.

Your novels and non-fiction books that are published on Amazon are just as vulnerable to Googlebot sniffing as your own writer website and weekly blog posts. Think of the times you’ve entered a search phrase on Google and how it’s identified an Amazon publication. That’s no accident. The same thing’s going on with your blogs and guest posts, and it’s a fact of life for your author site.

You can’t hide on the net so the best thing you can do is work with it. That’s the value in understanding how good web content will make you a far better writer. This isn’t new fad or a current trend. It’s a long-tern reality that the internet has changed the way we write to do business. Fortunately, it’s not a hard game to learn how to play.

Four Main SEO Parts for Content Writers to Know

There are 4 main parts in SEO for content writers to know—written, media, tags and authorship. Each one is a separate entity but vital to balance if you want to increase web content exposure and rank high in search results. Let’s look at what each part is.

Written is the core of your internet content writing piece. It’s substance over style every time because Google can’t yet recognize what makes a writer great but it sure tells when writing is bad. A unique voice is desirable but for content it has to deliver information and substance that fits the topic and is helpful. Good content has solid sentence structure, grammar, and sound reasoning. It’s not cutesy and requiring someone to “get it”.

Media refers to visuals. That can be photo images, infographics, illustrations, tables, video, or anything that Google can see. The old saying, “A picture is worth 1,000 words” is so true in boosting your content recognition. Again, it has to be relevant and useful. There are technical tips to know about media insertion such as Alt Tags that briefly define what the picture is. That’s more for the webmaster to worry about, but a content writer needs to be aware of the importance.

Tags go with meta descriptions in getting identified on the web. They also relate to website layout as opposed to content writing. But tags and meta descriptions are hugely important in building an overall effective website or post. The difference between tags and description are tags are visual on the actual piece as it appears on the web and meta description is how it’s presented on SERPs.

Authorship is the authority behind the content. The author’s credentials are attached to the article and give it street creds. The higher profile the content writer has, the better the SEO chance the piece has. An example is my HuffPost profile. I might not get paid for most of these pieces but my SEO ranking is far better because of my authorship on the Huff. Take advantage of every authorship exposure you can. Build a professional profile with a good headshot and link it to every content piece you write. Your SERPs will reward you.

Good Headlines are Highly Important

I’ve found writing effective headlines one of the trickiest parts of content writing—whether for a commissioned client or my own blog posts. There’s an art to this, so I turn to my internet friend Jeff Goins who’s one of the best content writers on the market today. Jeff’s TribeWriters course is excellent value, and he really puts headline writing into perspective.

“Headlines are the first thing people see,” Jeff says. “They need to be attractive, interesting, and descriptive. Headlines should be objective and transform the reader from a browser to being engaged. You need a trigger word such as ‘how’ or ‘why’, a keyword like ‘ways’ or ‘techniques’, a promise like ‘will’ or ‘fix’, and an adjective such as ‘important or quickly’.”

Let’s analyze this blog post’s headline.

“How Web Content Writing Will Make You a Far Better Writer”

Trigger Word — “How”

Keywords — “Web, Content, Writing, Writer”

Promise — “Will Make You”

Adjective — “A Far Better”

Jeff Goins also says there are three basic types of headlines.

World View — “Why Every —— Should ——”

Establish Authority — “What I Know About ——”

Achievement — “ How I ——”

Blogging king Jon Morrow of Smart Blogger has another take on effective headlines in his free pdf download Headline Hacks — A Cheat Sheet For Writing Blog Posts That Go Viral. Jon breaks down good headlines into three simple categories.

The How-To — “How To —— A Million Dollars”

The List — “17 —— To Make Money”

The Bonus — “Get Rich While You ——“

There are excellent web-based headline analyzing tools available. When I was struggling with this blog post’s caption, I threw at least a dozen combinations into CoSchedule and it liked “Web Content Writing Will Make You a Far Better Writer” the best. Check the screenshot image (left) and note how it fits into Jeff Goins’s concept.

If you’re handed commercial pieces like Emily administers in HealthyContentAgency.com, you’ll probably have the headlines pre-assigned. That’s good because you can burn up a lot of valuable research, writing, and proofing time struggling for headlines that work. Speaking of researching, writing, and proofing, I’ll show you my actual process that’s let me become proficient in putting out web content pieces at a commercial pace.

First, I’d like to share some general tips for web content writing.

General Tips for Writing Web Content

No doubt there’s a knack to web writing just as there is with every other form of written communication. Top fiction genre writers have their tricks. So do front-line journalists. While these high-profile pen monkeys get their share of glory, there’s not much in it for lowly web scribes. We just put out volume that works on the internet and we stay in the shadows. Most commercial content is ghost-written, anyway.

But there are a number of tips that can help you fine tune web content writing. You can take them over to your own particular brand of wordsmithing. Or, you can leave them as you wish. In no particular order, here are twenty-one content writing ideas I’ve picked up and found to work.

1. Use an active, informal voice. Ditch the passive, formal. Make it personal but not too slick. Find a balance but don’t kill yourself if you use the passive voice, We all speak that way. Being aware is the main thing.

2. Use a mix of short and long sentences. Try not to use more than one conjunction for independent clauses. Yes. There’s nothing wrong with one-word sentences.

3. Use 3-4 sentences per paragraph.

4. Make whitespace your friend. It makes scanning easier.

5. Use a subheading or bold highlight every 5-10 paragraphs.

6. Place keywords in headings and subheadings.

7. Don’t use fancy words. If you need a thesaurus or dictionary, you’re struggling with the wrong word.

8. Write toward a lower-grade audience. I ran the first four paragraphs of this post through the Readability Analyzer app and it rates this content at a Grade 6 reading level. That’s cool!

9. Careful with acronyms. Spell out the entire phrase first, then use the acronym or abbreviation.

10. Work with strong nouns and verbs. Minimize adverbs and adjectives. But not always.

11. Exclamation marks are for 11-year-olds!!!

12. Know grammar rules so when your break ‘em you do so intentionally.

13. You’ll never learn how to properly use commas so don’t sweat it.

14. Invest in The Elements of Style by Strunk & White.

15. Read lots of web articles and blog posts. Learn from the good. Chuck the bad.

16. Never ship work without proofreading. Never. Never. Never. Full stop.

17. Use self-editing tools like Grammarly but there’s no replacing a human eye.

18. Shortform content pieces have their place, but longforms are preferred by Google.

19. Shortforms are between 500-900 words. Longforms are 2300+.

20. Today, a rule of thumb is “the longer, the better”. This post is 5932 words.

21. Always use a Call To Action (CTA) at the end of your content. It’s a must.

Putting Web Content Researching, Writing, and Proofing into Practice

Here’s where the ink hits the page or the images hit the screen in the web writing world. I mentioned that I’ve cranked out over a third of a million commercial web words in three-quarters of a year. That’s not counting all the personal blog posts I’ve written, books I’m working on, and a pile of email messages.

I’ve worked out a system and recorded some stats that I’d like to share with you. I’m not saying it’s the best way to research, draft, and proof/ship web content pieces. It just works for me and is the best use of time I can make. I also analyzed the last ten pieces and took an average of time spent in each category and how that displays as a time and effort percentage. I’ll show it to you, but first here’s how I put content writing into practice.

Research

I probably spend too much time researching a topic. But in order to sensibly draft it, I have to understand it. Then the words flow and I can make my words per hour (WPH) cost effective. In other words, it has to return a decent dollar per hour (DPH) because all web content assignments are paid on a flat rate, not by the actual time they take to complete.

I start research by Googling the meat of the topic and see what comes up. For instance, “How To Write Web Content” has 38,800,000 results. That’s a whack of stuff to pour through. Fortunately, Google ranks the best links on the top SERPs so I go from there. (Hmm… I wonder if these content writers intentionally wrote the pieces with SEO in mind to score high rankings…)

Once I find existing content that seems useful, I copy and paste it to a Word.doc and then format it to Ariel 10-point in black on white with 1.15 line spacing and 6-after paragraph spacing. This makes for easy reading and a minimal amount of paper and ink used when printed. I find around 10 articles and stop. Then I print them to hard copy and go over them with a yellow highlighter and a red pen. That’s my code system for identifying pertinent info and facts.

Drafting

Now it’s time to switch hats and start the creative process of drafting the piece. I also switch locations. I do research and reading at home where I have an internet connection but to be time effective, I leave the house and go to the nearby university where I’ve claimed a quiet place in the library. It’s my spot. This change of location changes my mindset. I’m far more productive than at home and not distracted by the phone, door bell, or sneaking peeks at pets on the net.

I’m nearly twice as efficient at the library. It gets me out and around young, vibrant people as well as being surrounded by thousands of books and millions upon millions of knowledgeable words produced over hundreds of years of researching and writing by some of the brightest minds the world has ever known. Plus, I like it there and it’s quiet.

I’m not a fast writer, but I’m clean. I do a bare-bones outline with the introduction, the main points, and the call to action.

Then I start writing. Again, I use Arial font but in 12-point. It’s easier to see on the screen for an old guy like me. The first 500 words are slow and then it takes off. I take a 10-15 minute break once per hour or so, get up, and walk around. This is really important. I rarely go back and review during the draft stage. When the word count for the assignment is reached, I save and go home.

Proofing/Shipping

Now comes the proof/ship phase and it’s quick. I paste the Word.doc into Grammarly and go through it. Grammarly’s great, but it can’t read your mind. Once I catch mistakes like typos, spacing, and bad form, I take the amended Word.doc and change the font to Tahoma 10-point. This proofreading trick really helps to look through a different perspective. Then I scan the document rather than read it word by word. Over the years I’ve developed an ability to speed read. I can accurately cover a 3K word doc in about 10 minutes. And under my breath, I’m reading it out loud.

Once the Word.doc is as clean as I can get it, it’s time to ship. There’s no point beating this thing because it goes to another set of eyes before delivering to the client. I simply ship an email attachment and save it to a folder. Then it’s out of sight, out of mind, and on to the next. I find one longform of around 3K words is enough for one day but it depends on what has to be done and by when.

Something I’ve really learned is how to work within deadlines.

Consistently researching, writing, and shipping within a limited time frame really boosts productivity. It also boosts confidence. That applies to all other forms of writing including my own blog posts and novels. That’s the biggest takeaway I’ve gained from learning how to write web content—applying web content writing principles to novel writing. Overall, it’s made me a far better writer.

I record exact stats on how my research, draft, and proof/ship time efficiency works out. I carefully record my time into blocks rounded off to 5 minutes. When the piece is shipped, I divide the total time by 60 for an hourly calculation. Then I work it into the percentage of time it took for each phase as well as dividing the total word count (WC) by the actual writing time for the number of words per hour (WPH). I also divide the total project time by the flat fee for the return on overall dollars per hour (DPH).

Some days production and pay are good. Some days, not so good. That’s how the web content writing business goes. Here are the stats for the average of my last 10 longform assignments.

Total Project Time — 5.83 hr
Total Research Time — 2.0 hr
Average Research Percentage — 36.2%
Total Drafting Time — 3.28 hr
Average Drafting Percentage — 59.3%
Total Proof/Ship Time — 0.25 hr
Average Proof/Ship Percentage — 4.5%
Average Word Count (WC) — 2990
Average Words Per Hour (WPH) — 912

I also keep precise track of the dollar per hour return, but I’m reluctant to share specifics to protect confidential pricing structure. It all depends on the amount charged to a client and how efficient my time is. You can make decent money ($50/hr+) from content writing if you get good assignments and produce quality work fast. Generally, a flat rate will be a set for the article and you can break that down to a certain fraction of a cent per word.

I don’t think I can speed up my drafting time, but I probably do too much researching. However, to cut this down, I probably wouldn’t get sufficient knowledge to write an informative and valuable piece that’d be found on Google. That’s the whole point of the exercise. And it’s why I’m getting paid for web content writing.

I hope you’ve got some decent information and tips on how to write effective web content from this. I sincerely believe it’ll help make you an overall better writer. And here’s the call to action:

Please share this article on social media and email it to friends who’ll benefit.

——

Over to you Kill Zoners. At least the ones who’ve managed to stick with and stay awake in this class. Have you done commercial web content writing? Do you write personal blog posts and web-style pieces? How does this piece relate to your work? And what do you have to share with the rest of us? The floor is open for comments.

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and coroner who reincarnated as a crime writer and indie publisher. Garry’s based-on-true-crime series are an 8-book run on real cases he worked on (or real cases that worked on him). Now, Garry’s onto a new venture—a hardboiled detective fiction series called City Of Danger.

Aside from telling lies on Amazon, Kobo, and Nook, Garry Rodgers is also an old boat skipper with a 60-tonne Marine Captain ticket to prove it. He puts it to use around his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia on Canada’s west coast.

TKZ Marketing Survey

by Steve Hooley

After a recent post on marketing, by Clare, Marketing in the Time of Covid, (April 12, 2021), Debbie and I were discussing the topic, and decided to survey all the contributors here at TKZ to learn their practices and strategies, and see what differences exist between indie and traditional publishers. In today’s post you’ll see five of the nine responses. On Tuesday, 5/25/21, you’ll see the remaining four responses and Debbie’s analysis, so please return on Tuesday to finish the discussion.

Today, as you read the responses, please be thinking about your overall strategy for marketing and if you plan to change any components.

 

John Gilstrap’s answers:

Traditional Pub

  1. What is your goal with marketing?
  2. The real answer here will sound flippant, but it’s true: My goal is to make my name and by books more recognizable to the public, and therefore sell more. I haven’t established any hard and fast metrics for this. And without metrics, my “goal” is more accurately classified as a “strategy.”
  3. What marketing do you do or participate in?
  • Speaking – Zoom – Podcasts – Book Tours – interviews

o   Speaking gigs as we once knew them are obviously dormant. As soon as more of America is released from house arrest, I hope to get back to more of that. In 2020, I did a number of Zoom meetings, from individual book clubs—which I hope to continue into the future—to speaking at virtual conferences.

  • Blogging – Website

o   TKZ is the only blog on which I regularly participate. I have a website that I keep current with book data, and I’ve populated it with short stories and essays about writing. That said, the website is fairly static. While I provide the content, I do not handle the design or manipulation of the site.

  • Newsletter

o   I have a newsletter list, and in theory, I send out newsletters, but I am not nearly regular enough with them. I send out publication announcements, but my life is too boring to send regular (monthly or quarterly) newsletters. I think I just don’t understand the purpose of newsletters.

  • Social media – Which platforms

o   Ah, social media. What a cesspool that has become. My SM focus has been on Facebook and YouTube. I use my Facebook author page as I think I’m supposed to use my newsletter. I post about the progress of the house we’re building and about selected life events. I also participate pretty actively in a 100K+-member FB group about fiction writing. I leverage many of those posts to point people to my YouTube channel which I call a Writer’s View on Writing and Publishing. The point of my YouTube channel is to get more invitations to speak at conferences and such.

  • Conferences – networking

o   Conferences are the great casualty of the pandemic panic. There’s no way to replace that kind of face-to-face interaction with readers, fans and other authors. That said, I have a standing date with some author buddies for virtual happy hours every Wednesday evening via Zoom. It’s not the same, but it helps.

  • Others

o   Kensington (my publisher) does a lot of work on my behalf with GoodReads, BookBub and the various retailers, but I don’t understand how most of that stuff works.

  1. For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?)
  2. I dedicate probably an hour per day to Facebook. My TKZ posts take at least two hours apiece—often more. The videos for my YouTube channel take a few hours apiece, between scripting, shooting and editing. I tend to binge-shoot these in the weeks between books, and as my deadlines approach, I don’t do any social media.
  3. For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective?
  4. I have no idea. I don’t even know where to look to find that data.
  5. What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above?
  6. My publisher’s publicity apparatus has been very helpful in educating me on what does and does not work in social media. We work together to project the same messages around publication dates. Historically, they’ve also arranged for some speaking gigs on my behalf. As far as YouTube is concerned, the best education sources are on YouTube itself.
  7. What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic?
  8. I haven’t changed things so much as I have backed away from them. The best analogy I can think of is this: If I were on a canoe camping trip through the woods and a freak storm turned the normally placid river into a torrent, I wouldn’t attempt to navigate the dangerous waters. Instead, I’d wait for the stormwaters to recede. That’s what I’m doing during the blind panic of the pandemic.
  9. Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over?
  10. It’s been my belief from the beginning that there is virtually nothing an author can do to significantly impact sales. I think that book tours are terrible wastes of money and time. Conferences are better, but not by much. The Holy Grail of marketing is to snag the keynote speaker slot, but there are only so many of those to go around. The best way for an author to sell books is to write more books.

 

Jim Bell’s answers:

Indie Pub

What marketing do you do?
Speaking – Zoom – Podcasts – Book Tours – interviews
Blogging – Website
Newsletter
Social media – Which platforms     Twitter, Facebook (limited)
Paid ads – which onesBookBub, BookGorilla
Conferences – networking

3. For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you
spend (per week? per month?)

It varies, of course. I try generally to keep things 90/10…90% on my writing because word of mouth (the result of really good book) is by far the best marketing.

4. For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment?

In the back of my mind I’m always thinking I have an hourly worth based on my average writing income each month. So I tend to think “I’m losing money by spending too much time here” with regard to social media.

Which one do you think is the most effective?

BookBub.

5. What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above?

TheCreativePenn.com

6. What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic?

Obviously, more Zoom. Workshops, mini-conferences.

7. Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over?

Nothing really. I’ve kept writing as #1 and that hasn’t changed. I’ve tried paid ads — cost per click — on both BookBub and Amazon, but haven’t cracked the code for fiction. Nonfiction has worked better.

8. Where do you sell your books?

Amazon.

 

Terry Odell answers:

Indie Pub

I didn’t answer because I don’t have a marketing plan. I’m random and haphazard, and don’t track much.

Best for me, IF you can get one, is a BookBub deal. For Audio, a Chirp deal. I’ve done ads with other newsletters, such as ENT, Bargain/Free Booksy, Fussy Librarian. I’ve done the occasional Amazon ad, but just let them handle it, and I keep my spending very low.

I have a blog, a newsletter that goes out when I have something new, a Facebook Author Page. My blog feeds to my author page, to Amazon, to Goodreads (which I never visit), and I’m not even sure where else it shows up.

The only thing that’s changed during the pandemic is I haven’t gone to any conferences, although I’d cut way back before the pandemic.

Social media is about engaging, not selling, but if it’s lumped into marketing, then I probably spend under an hour/day doing “marketing.” If you remove that from the mix, more like 10-15 minutes, max.

Can you tell I don’t like marketing? I’m not in this gig for the money; I’d go nuts if I wasn’t writing. Seeing sales is good, but I look at bad years as a way to cut back on our taxes.

 

Elaine Viets’s answers:

Traditional Pub

  1. What is your goal with marketing?
  • To create a loyal group of satisfied readers who will return to buy my mysteries and help sell books by word of mouth.
  1. What marketing do you do or participate in?
  • Speaking – Zoom – Podcasts – Book Tours – interviews
  • I give talks via Zoom and I’ve been a podcast guest. Before Covid-19 I went on book tours. Now I participate in Zoom book signings. These are most successful if I team up with one or more writers for the event. My last Zoom book signing was with Charlaine Harris at Murder on the Beach Bookstore in Delray Beach, FL. Murder on the Beach asks participants to buy at least one book.
  • Blogging – Website
    • I’ve cut back on blogging, except for TKZ. I believe blogging’s popularity is waning. TKZ has an established audience, and it’s worth my time.
  • Newsletter
    • I have a database of about 3000 names and send out a newsletter two or three times a year, usually when I have a new book or anthology coming out. I don’t like to bombard my readers with constant newsletters.
  • Social media – Which platforms
    • Social media is a huge time suck. I use Twitter and Facebook.
  • Conferences – networking
    • Thanks to Covid, most of the conferences were cancelled. I really miss them. I’ve been a speaker at several virtual conferences and will be at Mostly Malice, the Malice Domestic conference. As for networking, I belong to MWA and I’m treasurer of the Sisters in Crime Treasure Coast Chapter.
  • Others
    • My agent, Joshua Bilmes of JABberwocky, got the rights back for my Dead-End Job mysteries, my Josie Marcus cozy series and the Francesca Vierling series. He commissioned new covers and descriptions. Julie Smith at BooksBNimble does a good job of marketing the books. She places ads and has giveaways.
  1. For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?) Blogging takes about two days per month. Social media is about half an hour per day.
  2. For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective? Facebook gives me the best results personally, though BooksBNimble does well as an income stream.
  3. What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above? I learned about BooksBNimble by networking.
  4. What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic? I go to fewer in-person events, and I miss conferences and book signings.
  5. Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over? If I were starting over, I would join MWA and Sisters in Crime earlier and go to the conferences as soon as I had a contract, rather than waiting for my book to come out.

 

Steve Hooley’s Answers:

Indie Pub

  1. What is your goal with marketing? Leave a legacy for my descendants. Sell more books.
  2. What marketing do you do?
  • Speaking – Zoom – Podcasts – Book Tours – interviews Beginning to work on a target audience of schools with visits and zoom.
  • Blogging – Website TKZ only. Website needs updating.
  • Newsletter Once monthly to a sign-up group
  • Social media – Which platforms On Facebook, don’t use it.
  • Paid ads – which ones Want to learn about this.
  • Conferences – networking – In past. Not post-virus.
  • Others
  1. For each specific activity above that you use, how much time do you estimate that you spend (per week? per month?) Speaking – just starting – one hour per month. Blog (TKZ) about 2-3 hr every other week. Newsletter – one hour monthly.
  2. For each activity above that you use, what do you estimate is your return on investment? Which one do you think is the most effective? No return with any, other than speaking to individuals and small groups when I was still in my office. Most effective – speaking.
  3. What resources have been most helpful to you in learning the above? JSB – How to Make a Living as a Writer. Dale Carnegie – The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking. Kahle and Workhoven – Naked at the Podium. David Gaughran – books and newsletters.
  4. What changes have you made to your marketing b/c of the pandemic? Beginning to learn Zoom.
  5. Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were starting over? Build my website as a website rather than a blog site. Do a better job of updating. Build a bigger newsletter list. Start public speaking sooner. Experiment with paid ads. Begin use of Zoom earlier.
  6. Where do you sell your books? Amazon and local bookstores.

 

 

Okay, TKZ family, it’s your turn:

  • What is your overall plan or strategy for marketing?
  • Do you plan to make any changes?

 

Two final notes: 

  1. Please remember to stop back on Tuesday, 5/25, when the four remaining responses from TKZ contributors will be presented, and  Debbie will analyze the results and wrap things up.
  2. In two weeks (June 5th) Dale Ivan Smith, a former librarian, will present a guest post, titled “How to Break Into a Library.” Please join us, and bring all your library questions.

Writing Into The Dark

Okay. I expect some typer’s tension from this touchy topic. Plotters gonna hate. Pansters gonna say, “Yay!” And page-by-page cyclers with outline notes gonna go, “Meh. Nothin’ new. Was doin’ this all the time.” Writing into the dark, that is.

What’s writing into the dark? No, it’s not sitting in a room with the lights off and blindly searching for the keys. It’s a writing method that’s been around a long, long time and it involves going beyond seat-of-your-pants production.

That’s right. No outline. No vision. Just as I’m doing right now with pure exploration. Sure, I’ve done my research for this piece and have some crib notes of key points. I can’t imagine writing anything without some knowledge of what the post, essay, short story, novella, novel, or tome is going to be about. At least anything logical, that is.

Back up a sec, Garry, and explain plotting, pantsing, and page-by-paging for the newbies.

Plotting writers make detailed outlines of their work before they start. It’s like making blueprints for a house, and they rigidly follow those plans to a successful conclusion. Sure, there are a few change orders along the way, as there always are in house building. But for the most part, the end is always envisioned before breaking ground and starting construction.

Panster writers literally build by the seat of their pants. They also want a house built, but they love the freedom of working without permits or even drawings, except maybe on napkins. They dig a metaphoric hole, fill it with words, and fly at it—one word at a time until they hit “The End”. For some, pansting works. For others, it doesn’t.

Page-by page cycling? That was a new term to me. It’s outlining as you go, or cycling back to correct mistakes every page or so. It was news to me until I got introduced to Dean Wesley Smith (DWS) and read his book Writing Into The Dark. Or was it?

Two things aligned at the same time to get me going on “writing into the dark”. One was from Harvey Stanbrough who’s a regular commenter here at the Kill Zone. Harvey is a prolific writer, to say the least, and he PM’d me to say, “Check out Writing Into The Dark.” Harvey also told me to check out Heinlein’s Rules for Writing, which I did, and that’s material enough for a whole other post. At the same time, I was video chatting with my good friend and UK indie writer, Rachel Amphlett. Rachel also recommended I read Writing Into The Dark as it’s become her novel-writing method.

Writing Into The Dark opens with Dean Wesley Smith saying this:

He spoke to me, and Dean kept me hooked in the book until the end. What I got out of Writing Into The Dark is realizing I’ve evolved or morphed over time from a plotter to a pantster to a page-by-page drafter who’s learned to speed things up through a process Dean Smith calls “cycling”. I have to say I’ve found my stride, and I’m very comfortable drafting an entire book by outlining as I go.

Before drilling into what page-by-page, cycling, and outlining-as-you-go entails, I want to deal with a very important part of the dark writing method. Dean goes into a bit of brain science and how it applies to plotters and pansters. Plotters generally apply the critical part of their thinking process. They want to know exactly what route they’re taking in driving through the story. Pansters apply creative brain function. They thrive on allowing creativity to flow by putting the creative side first but still allow the critical brain to keep watch. Critical brains stifle creative brains every time.

Dark writers say “Fu*k it. Critical brain stay home. Me ’n ole creativity here are goin’ for a ride and hang on to yer hat maggot, ’cause this is gonna take yer breath away!”

In Dean Smith’s writing method, he goes hard and fast with only short glimpses in the work mirror. He writes a page or two at a time (page-by-page), then quickly looks back, fixes whatever, and moves on. This he calls cycling through the manuscript. Write a page or two, cycle back, fix or edit, and do it again. Throughout his page-cycle rhythm, Dean keeps a notepad at his side where he jots down ideas and story points. This is his idea of an outline.

Besides reading Writing Into The Dark, I watched a video presentation Dean gave to a writers conference about his process. I also read an insightful interview with him, and I’ll snip some conversation from them. I feel Dean Wesley Smith is a master of dark writing technique (He’s written hundreds upon hundreds of books and pieces) so I’ll let him have a few words right here on the Kill Zone stage.

“Writing fast, writing a lot, and keeping on submitting changed the way I look at writing,” Dean says. “It changed my mindset. It taught me to trust my instincts and trust my voice. I left my voice in my stories because I didn’t rewrite everything into dullness. Rewriting kills your voice and your natural ability to tell a story.”

Dean goes on to say, “I hated the idea of writing sloppy, so when I realized something needed to be fixed, I went right back and fixed it. I developed the habit of cycling back every few hundred words and doing minor revisions, all the while keeping a handwritten outline of points beside me. But when I get to the end of the story, I leave it alone.”

Here is some advice from Dean Smith for emerging writers. “Focus on the story and moving ahead. Write more. Learn. Have fun. Keep learning and experimenting. Stop making it so serious. This is entertainment, so entertain yourself and have fun.”

I know there’s a lot of truth in Dean’s words because dark writing is working for me. I outlined the ever-living sh*t out of my first novel. It was planned like the D-Day Invasion of Normandy. Slowly—over time—I loosened up a bit. But things changed, big time, when I spent two years writing cranking commercial web content for my slave-driving daughter’s online writing business.

That meat grinder doesn’t allow for much outlining. Not if you’re going to make money, that is. It’s research, write, proof, ship, and do it all over with a new topic that you’re really not all that hyped-up on. I wrote about everything from gastroenterology to bruxism to naturopathy treatments for foul-smelling vaginal secretions on a health & wellness site — to stainless steel vat technology in the hipster cottage brew industry.

Trust me. You want to get through this stuff as fast and with as little or no pain as possible. To survive and pay the bills, I got wired on dark writing. And I brought it with me when I went back to novels. Because you’re my friends, I’m going to show you my current writing method which is almost as dark as my subject matter and soul.

I’m working through a based-on-true crime series and releasing a new product every two months. Average lengths are about 52K words, and when I’m on a roll I write 900 to 1,000 words per hour. On a good day, when I’m not sidetracked by squirrels or severely hung over, I get-in about 3,500 words. So the calculator computes I draft a new book in about 15 writing days or 55 writing hours.

I don’t pre-outline anymore. I do exactly as Dean Wesley Smith does, and I didn’t know was it was called until Rachel and Harvey told me to read his book. Whadda ya know? Dean and I have something in common.

My outline emerges as I write chapter by chapter. I know where the story goes and how it ends because I lived in or around these crimes that I’m currently writing on. You gotta cut me some slack on internally knowing this series, but I’ll do the same on the next, which I plan to do in upcoming City Of Danger. What I do is keep a running log, or flow chart, on 11×17 paper. I’ll post the images so I don’t have to do any more describing than necessary. It’s the old picture being worth a thousand words thing.

See how my outline-as-I-go has evolved? I didn’t post pics of my first two in the series, In The Attic and Under The Ground. I didn’t use one for Attic, and I’ve lost the one for Ground. When I look at the progression through From The Shadows, Beside The Road, On The Floor, Between The Bikers, Beyond The Limits, and to my nearly-finished WIP At The Cabin, I see my method slightly changing. Hopefully, improving. I’ll let you know if it ever gets perfected, but don’t hold your breath.

You’re probably wondering what all those blurry swiggles and stimbols are. I outline-as-I-go from left to right and enter the chapter (scene) number, the date and time locaters, main plot points, the chapter word count (in red), and the overall story word count (in red) as it progresses scene by scene. That’s it. That’s how I keep track of a book’s gestation. The rest is mostly in my creative side except for research downloads and general hand-noted points similar to an editor’s style sheet.

I used to do second-day editing where I’d go back over the previous day’s works, but I gave that up for what I figured out is cycling, as Dean Smith calls it. Once I get to the end, I run it through Grammarly and clean it up. Then it’s off to my proofreader who does a remarkable job of finding issues, even teeny-tiny mistakes. Oh, BTW, I write each chapter/scene on a separate Word.doc and assemble them into one full manuscript as I do the Grammarly edit.

That’s it. I’m not saying my way of writing into the dark is right or wrong. It’s just an option I thought I should share. You do what works for you, but make sure you do one thing right. That’s to keep on writing and putting it out there, just as Heinlein’s rules prescribe.

It’s your turn, Kill Zoners. Am I out to lunch with this reckless behavior? Have you tried dark writing? Tell us in the comments what your style is, and your outlining experiences are.

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective—an old murder cop—who went on to another career as a coroner handling forensic death investigations. Now, Garry’s returned from the bowels of the morgue and arose as an internationally bestselling crime writer. True story & he’s sticking to it.

Garry is also an indie publisher currently finishing a 12-part, based-on-true-crime series detailing investigations he was involved in. Garry Rodgers runs a popular blog site at DyingWords.net and messes around on Twitter. When not writing into the dark, Garry spends time putting around the saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia on Canada’s Covid free infested southwest coast.

Reader Friday: Are There Rules for Good Books?

Reader Friday: Are There Rules for Good Books?

Reader Friday

Photo: Ansel Adams with Camera from Wikimedia Commons

My photographer son had an informal holiday party (virtual, of course), and trivia games were played, including quotes from famous photographers. One that caught my interest was this quote from Ansel Adams.

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

Do you think this this applies to books, too?

**I’ve been vaccinated, my waiting period is up, and am finally going to see my mom for the first time in over a year. She had COVID, got the antibody infusion, and her doctor said it’s safe to get together. I’m on the road (and in the air) today, so I won’t be around to reply to comments. Don’t let that stop you from leaving them!

Mentoring For Writers

“Good ole Fred,” I say.

“Who?” you ask.

“Fred. Fred Mahle. My mentor.”

“Okay,” you go.

“Fred was my police mentor. He was a Detective Sergeant on the homicide squad who must have seen something in me as a rookie and thought I was worthwhile mentoring. Because of Fred, I learned the criminal investigation ropes and managed to make a somewhat successful career out of being a murder cop.”

“Nice,” you say.

“Sadly, Fred’s long gone now. But what he taught me stuck. Fred fed me wisps of wisdom like, ‘God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason’ and ‘You get more bees with honey than you do with vinegar.’ Fred was a Columbo character with a Da Vinci brain. He was the one who caught child serial killer Clifford Olson and struck the deal to pay Olson ten grand a piece to turn over the bodies. In the end, Olson got a hundred thousand and a life sentence. Ten families got closure.”

Impressive. “What brought this on for a Kill Zone post?”

“I’m doing a bit of mentoring now myself. Not as a detective, but as a writer. I’m a writer who’s mentoring a detective.”

(Laughs) “Say what?”

“Yeah. It’s come full circle. When I retired from being Doctor Death in the police and coroner business, I reinvented myself as a crime writer. Not necessarily a good crime writer, but I’ve learned a few tricks, and I’m in the position to share them with a real detective who’s just retired and wants to take up this crazy wordsmithing game. Get this. She’s silly enough to turn to me for advice, so now I’m mentoring her.”

“Go figger.”

——

I think all of us have been mentored to some degree throughout our lives—careers if you like. And I’d like to think that as we get older and more experienced in our lines, we mentor others. That may be a formal mentorship as in an apprenticing role or an informal one like touring the new hire around the book factory floor.

And I think you learn a lot on both ends—mentor and mentoree (master/protégé). I’ve been commercially writing for a while now and when I put together a “mentorship” program for the poor sucker nice lady I’m helping out, I was surprised to find just how much I’ve learned about the writing craft and biz. I look forward to this journey with her.

Ever wonder where the word “mentor” came from? No, neither did I until I sat down to rabbit-hole a bit of research for this piece. Here’s the scoop.

Homer, the Greek writer, had a character called Ulysses in his epic work The Odyssey. Ulysses was prepping for the Trojan war and knew he’d be away for a while. (Turned out it was ten years.) So Ulysses entrusted his only son and heir, Telemachus, with being scholared by his wise and learned friend, Mentor. There, you’re welcome.

History shows that people like us—like young trees in an old forest—thrive best when we grow in the presence of those who’ve gone before us. This isn’t new ground. Even the greats like Plato and Aristotle were mentored. Same with Michelangelo and Van Gogh. I’m sure great writers like Hemmingway had some sort of mentor other than a whiskey flask.

I Googled around for mentoring’s best definition and to find some sort of accepted format for a mentorship program. Wikipedia (a mentor of sorts) says: Mentorship is the influence, guidance, or direction given by a mentor to a mentee. A mentor influences the personal and professional growth of a mentee and offers psychological support, career guidance, and role modeling. Mentoring is a process that always involves cross-communication. It’s relationship-based, but its precise definition is elusive.

I found an interesting paper by a mentoring guru. It’s called Skills For Successful Mentoring: Competencies of Outstanding Mentors and Mentorees, and it’s written by Linda Phillips-Jones, Ph.D. She also wrote the book The New Mentors and Protégés.

Dr. Phillips-Jones says that effective mentoring requires more than common sense. Her research indicates that mentors and mentorees who develop and manage successful mentoring partnerships demonstrate specific and identifiable skills that enable learning and positive change to take place. She notes that unless a fairly structured process and specific skills are applied, mediocre relationships occur.

The paper offers a mentoring skills model that’s widely used in many businesses, large and small. It’s as close to a mentorship blueprint that’s out there. Here are the four primary or core mentor skills:

Listening Actively — A mentor must know their protégé’s interests and needs. Active listening is the most basic mentoring skill. When an understudy feels they are being heard and understood, they develop trust and this allows the relationship to grow.

Building Trust — The more the student and teacher trust each other, the more committed they’ll be to building their relationship and mutually benefiting from it. Trust develops over time if partners respect confidentiality, spend time together, cooperate constructively, and the mentor offers encouragement.

Determining Goals and Building Capacity — The mentor acts as a role model. They already have the experience required to lead which is done by setting goals and building competencies. Mentors act as resources or find them for their charge, impart knowledge, help with broader perspectives, and inspire the mentoree.

Encouragement — Dr. Phillips-Jones says giving encouragement is the mentoring skill most valued by protégés. She gives encouraging examples like favorably commenting on a mentoree’s accomplishments, communicating belief in the protégé’s growth capacity, and positively responding to inevitable frustrations.

The paper goes on to give practical advice on building a mentorship program. It states like most relationships, mentoring progresses in stages with each stage forming an inherent part of the next. Here are the four stages that frame a modern mentorship program:

Stage I — Building the Relationship
Stage II — Exchanging Information and Setting Goals
Stage III — Working Toward Goals / Deepening the Engagement
Stage IV — Ending the Formal Mentoring Relationship and Planning the Future

Dr. Phillip-Jones’s paper drills deep into developing each stage. It’s far more than a blog post can handle. If you’re interested, the Center for Health and Leadership has another paper titled Mentoring Guide — A Guide for Mentors which you can download for bedtime reading.

My Google trip took me to a place called Masterclass. You might have heard of it. I found a short but sweet post called How to Find and Choose a Writing Mentor. It opens with a cool definition: A writing mentor is an experienced writer who shares their wisdom with a new writer as they begin their career. The mentor provides support through regular meetings, either in person, on the phone, or online. A mentor will help a new author develop their voice and improve their writing skills by reviewing and critiquing their work. The mentor acts as a resource for ongoing support and creative growth.

How to Find and Choose a Writing Mentor itemizes six benefits of having a writing mentor. They are:

A mentor holds you accountable.
A mentor inspires you.
A mentor improves your writing skills.
A mentor supports your career path.
A mentor helps develop your voice.
A mentor helps you make decisions about publishing.

Besides the benefits, the post lists four things to look for in a writing mentor. These are:

Experience
Commonality
Accomplishments
Availability

And the article ends with four tips for finding a writing mentor. Here you go:

Find a writing community.
Become a member of a writing organization.
Take classes in person
Find a mentor online.

Do, or did I, have a writing mentor? Of course, I have. My number one inspiration has, is, and always will be Napoleon Hill’s classic works Think and Grow Rich. Some say Napoleon Hill was one big con-job, but say what you like—Think and Grow Rich is magic mentorship at its finest. There’s stuff in there that’ll change your life. Believe me, I know.

Stephen King is also my mentor. Now, I don’t pretend to know Stephen King personally, just as I never knew Napoleon Hill. What I’ve got from Stephen King’s works and his classic On Writing is a lifelong course in the craft. Here’s a post I recently wrote on my personal blog at DyingWords.net which is titled Stephen King’s Surprisingly Simple Secret to Success.

The Kill Zone is a mentorship in progress. I think that’s the ultimate goal of the Kill Zone — writers sharing their skillsets with other writers. That’s what I try to do around this place. I find it rewarding to help other writers help themselves, and I’m sure most writers feel the same thing. Especially Kill Zone writers.

I want to call out two Kill Zone contributors who act as mentors. One is James Scott Bell, or JSB, who has a lifetime with his butt in the chair and his fingers on the keys. Jim has a wealth of knowledge in his craft books, and his posts always lift me up. That’s mentorship.

The other is Sue Coletta. This totally unselfish gem is somewhat at the same writing career stage as me, and we act as peer mentors. My wife, Rita, calls Sue my “other wife”.

What about you Kill Zoners? Do you have mentors? Have you worked with mentors? Are you now mentoring someone else? And would you mentor someone if given the opportunity? Don’t be shy with your comments!

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner. Now, Garry’s a crime writer and indie publisher of sixteen books including an international bestselling based-on-true-crime series.

Outside of writing, Garry Rodgers is a certified marine captain and enjoys time putting around the saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island in Canada’s Pacific Northwest. Follow Garry on Twitter and check out his popular blog at www.DyingWords.net. BTW, In The Attic is FREE on Amazon, Kobo, and Nook.

AI (Artificial Intelligence) for Authors

Anyone remember HAL9000 from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 Space Odyssey series? HAL, or the Heuristically Programmed ALgorithmic Computer, was the artificial intelligence (AI) voice that famously said, “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” That series was set in 2001. Now, 20 years later, we authors are firmly anchored in a world of artificial intelligence.

Think about how AI affects our writing life. I’m pecking away on a laptop with spell check big-brothering me. My smartphone keeps tab of my time and when I text, AutoCorrect interferes—sometimes with hilarious changes. (Sidenote: no form of AI will ever get comma use right.)

I stop writing, more often than not, to fact check or rabbit hole on Google which is one large AI search engine. Same with Amazon and Facebook. They’re loaded with AI features we take for granted.

When I finish this piece, and I have no idea right now how long it’ll be, I’ll plug this AI-overseen Word.doc into my AI-run Grammarly editing program and clean it up the best I can before I pop it into AI-filled WordPress and hit publish so you can read it on AI-induced devices. Like, how cool is this brave new world of artificial intelligence?

Speaking of cool, I once paid top dollar to experience a gyro-ride in an artificially intelligent F/A-18 Hornet flight simulator. How I didn’t puke from being strapped-in and pulling multi-G’s was amazing in itself, and that’s for another story, but part of the thrill was listening to “Bitching Betty” who artificially sits with you in the cockpit and shrieks in an Edith Bunker voice, “Pull up! Pull up!” when you get too low to the ground while exiting an inverted loop.

Okay, back down to earth. Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, AI for authors. I’m a big believer in making work easier. In fact, I’d like to not work at all, but writing is work and it helps pay the bills. So I embrace what AI technology is out there to assist with the income.

I’m keeping a close eye on Text-To-Speech (TTS) technology. I think the next tech wave is interactive ebooks where the reader will have a solid listener option for the device to convincingly turn the text into a realistic voice. That virtual reality already exists. It’s just not perfected yet. But my bet is within a few short years AI will allow a quick tap on your eReader, and you’ll listen to your book as if Bitching Betty was real.

This AI advancement may put the screws to those expensive human narrators or voiceovers who control today’s audiobook production. That’s progress, as they say, and I look forward to an affordable alternative in entering the audiobook market. It’s just that today’s TTS apps aren’t realistic enough to let my book babies play well with them.

They’re getting there, though. What brought on this artificially intelligent post was a recent wave of internet ads by a company called Speechelo. Anyone else see the FB ad-flood offering a 3-step, simple-to-use AI TTS generator for a 1-time low, low price of $49.00? Well, it turns out to be too good to be true, and the AI bots from Google shrieked, “SCAM!”

However, my rabbit hole descent found something else which I think is the real-deal AI writer program. I’ll get to that in a sec. First, I want to say a bit about TTS technology.

There’s some good AI reading apps out there, no doubt. Amazon’s Polly is remarkable. Word on the street is that AZ has an experimental TTS program on the go that aims to perfect NGL (natural language generation) on Kindle devices. Currently, AZ has a Kindle text-to-speech enablement that’s terribly inefficient. Here’s a quote about the new TTS program from an Amazon side channel I found in the r-hole:

The second-generation Kindle and the Kindle DX have an “experimental” feature that converts any text to speech and realistically reads it to you. Calling a feature experimental means that it’s a peripheral Kindle feature that Amazon is working on;  they’re available for “test driving” by certain Kindle owners to use but they might not be fully featured. There are some features that Amazon could choose to discontinue before they’re available to the open market.”

I don’t have a Kindle, so I can’t apply for a test drive. What I’ve done is plug some of my WIP text into Polly, and I have to say it sounds pretty good. From a voice perspective, that is. However, the AI still doesn’t have convincing NGL where the pace, accent, pronunciation, pitch, and infliction is that of a human narrator who brings emotion to the audio experience. That’s coming, believe me, and I’ll welcome its arrival.

Okay, on to what I found in AI for authors and the takeaway from this piece. It’s an AI novel critique program called Marlowe from a new company called Authors A.I. I found this software by rabbit-holing, and I was as skeptical as a sailor being offered a discount date. Marlowe is a next-generation AI critic (not so much an editor) who works for peanuts compared to the flesh and blood word scalpel. Here’s their sales pitch:

Marlowe* is an artificial intelligence that helps authors improve their novels and long-form fiction. She was born in January 2020 as the creative child of Matthew Jockers, Ph.D., co-author of The Bestseller Code, abetted by a surrounding cast of bestselling authors who have been contributing ideas and enhancements to her reports.

Here are a few fun facts about this brilliant reader.

She’s fast. Marlowe can read your book and deliver a 25+ page comprehensive critique within an hour.

She’s inexpensive. Priced at a fraction of the cost of a human editor, Marlowe allows you to run multiple versions of your report and can be used at every stage in the life of your manuscript. Let Marlowe identify and help you solve early issues before your manuscript reaches an editor or beta readers.

She doesn’t play favorites. Marlowe doesn’t have a favorite genre. She doesn’t judge, whether your book is a light-as-air fantasy or a thriller filled with gore or violence. She reads all fictional genres and sub-genres and returns equal and unbiased feedback, though she will tweak her results based on her specific genre norms.

She knows what goes into a good story. Seriously. Marlowe can critique character traits, plot arcs, narrative arcs, pacing, punctuation, sentence structure, reading level, and more.

* Why Marlowe?
Marlowe is named for both Christopher Marlowe, the Elizabethan tragedian who inspired Shakespeare, and Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled private eye who plays chess and reads poetry. We like to think she has Philip Marlowe’s intellect and investigative skills and Christopher Marlowe’s pioneering spirit and love for the written word.

Marlow offers a free trial. Not being one to turn down something for free, I entered my manuscript for Beyond The Limits which is my latest release in my based on true crime series. I have to say I was impressed with the results. The freebie gave me twelve pages of professional-looking feedback on:

Sentence stats and readability score
Clichés
Dialogue vs narrative
Explicit language (aka profanity)
Frequent adverb and adjective use
Verb choice and passive voice
Punctuation data
Possible misspellings

This was all for free and the feedback provided excellent suggestions. It also offered the upsell that would give me information and criticism on:

Plot structure
Story beats
Pacing
Personality traits
Subject matter
Repetitive phrases

Now I’m not on the Marlowe affiliate program or getting some sort of kickback for promoting Marlowe. I just found this AI tool interesting enough that I think I’m going to buy their Pro version which runs at $89.00 for a single complete report or a monthly pass at $29.99. A full-year subscription will set you back $199.00.

And that is what AI is to authors—a tool. AI assistance is a valuable tool for writers. I’d say it’s an invaluable tool that’s only going to get better. However, I don’t believe AI will ever replace the human brain and the imagination it produces. As Kevin Kelly says in his 2016 book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, “It’s not a race against machines. We’ll lose. It’s a race with machines. You’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with machines. Let them take your existing job and let them help you dream up new work for the robots.”

I’m good with that take on AI. I’m not about to let some bot steal my story. As HAL said, “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

What about you Kill Zoners? What feedback can you give on AI for authors?

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and coroner. Garry’s expertise is investigating human deaths which led him to his third career in crime writing. His newest release in his 12-part Based-On-True-Crime Series is Beyond The Limits which covers an incomprehensible tragedy. The tagline is, “You never know what goes in in people’s minds.”

Garry Rodgers also hosts a popular blog at DyingWords.net. Besides writing ventures, Garry also holds a marine captain certification and uses it on the Pacific waters surrounding his home at Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada.

Is Blogging Worthwhile for Thriller and Mystery Writers?

To blog or not to blog? That is the question. (For thriller and mystery writers, that is.) Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous troll comments or bravely take pens against a sea of **crickets**.

If Shakespeare were alive in this internet day, my bet’s the Bard would blog—despite the extraordinary effort required to consistently publish and the resounding risk of no return. He, himself, said so: “The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation.”

We writers on the Kill Zone, and we followers of our blog, are not Shakespeare. We’re resilient mortals, albeit with self-doubt and insecurities, and consumed with pursuing the written word. Including weakly weekly words pounded out on WordPress.

Is blogging worthwhile for thriller and mystery writers? My take? Absolutely!

I hit the blog publish button on June 30, 2012, and I have no regrets. I’ve put out 400+ pieces on DyingWords.net, and it’s returned more satisfaction than I can count. Money? No, not directly. But there’s a much bigger picture to author blogging than direct monetary reward.

Let me count the ways. Blogging has helped build my writing and technical skills, it’s allowed me considerable craft experimentation, it’s educated me in so many ways, it’s forced discipline and motivated me to meet deadlines, and blogging has let me network with like-minded writers on an international scale. I’ve built a brand through blogging, I’ve met influencers or force-multipliers, and I’ve been humbly invited to guest post on prominent sites.

Looking back, I see blogging has done one overall and invaluable thing for my writing adventure. It’s given me discoverability. Being discovered on a global scale loops back to indirect commercialization—making money by having readers buy my books. Blogging has been so, so worthwhile, and I will not lose momentum.

“And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action”
~William Shakespeare / Hamlet

Running a regular blog isn’t for every thriller and mystery writer. Quite frankly, it’s a lot of bloody work. Many writers see blogging as a time suck with a low entry barrier where they compete with hacks who pollute the blogisphere with, well… shite.

I don’t worry about that. I’ve learned to do my own thing, and it’s slowly paid off. I look at blogging as a long-term venture—not some sort of a get-rich-quick scheme. (Spoiler Alert — nothing quick about getting rich with writing, and even Wild Bill Shakespeare made little money during his world-changing career.)

However, none of us are Bards, yet there’s never been a better time to be a writer. I sincerely mean this. We have amazing tools and resources to build our skills, cull our craft, network, and get discovered. Let’s look at why thriller and mystery writers should blog.

Improving Skills

Practice makes perfect. Although there’s no such thing as perfection—as far as I know—writing is a skill to be learned. It’s not Shakespearean-God-given talent for almost all of us. Whether you aspire to quill the next great American novel, outsell Rowling and King, or stack readers to your mail list, serious writers strive to improve. It’s a daily slog through other blogs and seeing what currently works.

What currently works for others may not work for you. “Current,” in blog terms, is as recent as a whale sighting. Blog things change fast. They surface and dive, but writing basics really don’t. Many times, blogging is about making old things seem new.

My experience in improving skills? Practice by publishing. Polish Erase the purple prose. Edit with efficiency. And keep on learning.

Experimentation

What’s writing without experimenting with your voice? “What’s voice?” my cow’s milk cheese, white bread, and raw leek sandwich once asked. Until I started blogging, I had no concept of “voice.”

Blogging taught me to free my voice. No, it’s not like free as in clothes-dropping and whirling-around-the-stripper-pole that my new neighbor Pamela Anderson performed in her video with Elton John. And yes… seriously… I’m not messing with you. Pam Anderson is my new neighbor, and that’s for a blog at another time.

See. I just experimented with my writing and my voice, and I know you’re going to read it when I post What I See With My Cabala’s Tripod-Mounted Bushnell Telescope When Pam’s Bedroom Blinds Slightly Crack.

Education

My blog has a tagline. It’s “Provoking Thoughts on Life, Death, and Writing.” Life. Death. Writing.

The blog–trogs of yesterday and the top-bloggers of today say, “Stick to your niche.” I didn’t know what a niche was when I started blogging. Till then, I thought a niche was my sister’s daughter.

But I learned what a niche was, and I found it. Education is a good thing. Education is something you’ll learn in spades when you blog. Continual education has let me learn to blog a lot about life, death, and writing. From that, I’ve learned a ton.

Discipline, Motivation & Deadlines

This is where my cop training came in—long before I was a writer. I was humiliated and soul-crushed in basic training—never mind physically worked to the mat—but I learned mental toughness and the power of teamwork.

Teamwork, motivation, deadlines, and discipline invoke mental toughness. It’s the underscore or underline of personal achievement. To put out blogs or articles, writing pieces day after day, and believe in yourself as a professional scribe, you have to psychologically put yourself in a winner mentality.

Discipline is putting your butt in your chair and your fingers on the keys. Motivation is personal—motivation is believing in your purpose and knowing you have deadlines. Deadlines are having this post up on the Kill Zone every second Thursday morning.

Blogging does this.

Networking

That’s why we’re all here at the Kill Zone. Not just the regular contributors who always have to constantly improve, experiment, educate, discipline/motivate, and meet deadlines. We network. And we critique each other. Often silently.

Blogging—and in my opinion—no better media lets you network more than blogging. I don’t mean just following my blogsite, or TKZ, or the hoards of SM-listed blog sites. There’s a whole wide world of blogging out there, and there’s a secret. That’s to tap into the blog community you want to be recognized by.

It’s by commenting.

Everyone in this TKZ thriller and writing community wants to network. Bloggers and followers inclusive. Sure, some contributors are prominent names and some commentators are new. Putting your comment on a TKZ post is a powerful networking move. Be assured prominent people are reading your comment, and they’re influencers who’ll help lift you.

Influencers/Force Multipliers

Writing. Blogging. Publishing. Marketing. This is a cooperative community. Not a competitive one. We help others to help themselves.

Influencers are folks who have gone before. They may be writers who’ve “made-it” as traditional publishing names. They may be teachers who go above and beyond to help other up-comers in indie publishing. And they may be peers who share what currently works, and what doesn’t for all of us in this crazy biz called writing, regardless of how you’re published.

Force-multipliers are big hitters. They have the success, credibility, and presence to endorse new-comers and guys like me. That might be an encouraging return comment on a blog post comment, or a SM shout-out reaching thousands.

Discoverability

Your return—your magic reward—from thriller and mystery writing blogging is discoverability. Yes, there’s a learning curve and a lot of work, but it’s so, so worth it.

I’ve blogged for over nine years. My followers aren’t huge by some scales, but I’ve amassed 2,100 qualified email list followers. My website clicks are around 800 a day. And when I send a DyingWords.net post out every second Saturday morning at 8:00 PST precisely, I get about 350 faithful readers clicking through.

These faithful readers discovered me through my blog. I look at it this way—if I called a town hall meeting every second Saturday morning and 350 showed up—with my bookselling table at the back of the room—I’d be happy with my blogging audience.

I don’t have a town hall, but my table is virtual, and my venue is open 24/7/365—internationally. It keeps growing as my blog keeps feeding it, and the spin-offs from my blog help discover me.

My secret sales sauce? Discoverability. It used to be called, “Word of Mouth.” Now it’s, “Word of Mouse.”

To me, as a Thriller and Mystery writer, “To blog or not to blog” isn’t the question. It’s the answer.

What about you Kill Zoners? Is blogging worthwhile?

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner responsible for investigating unexpected and unexplained human deaths. Now, Garry has reinvented himself as a crime writer and indie publisher.

An avid and active blogger at DyingWords.net, Garry Rodgers has also guest written for many sites including commissioned articles for the HuffPost. Garry lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at Canada’s southwest coast.

Is Speed Reading Efficient for Writers?

There’s a famous quip from Woody Allen that goes like this, “I took a course in speed reading. I read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It was about Russia.” There’s a lot of truth in those lines because when writers read for research (and pleasure) they need to find that balance between speed, comprehension, and production. It all comes down to efficiency.

Some folks naturally read faster than others. During my research for this Kill Zone piece, I sourced statistics that the average person reads at the speed of about 200 to 250 words per minute (wpm). That’s like a typical 12 point page spaced at 1.15 inches in 60 seconds. Speed demons can go as high as 400 wpm, but there’s a distinct line where speed becomes counter-productive, and the ability to comprehend and retain those words drastically diminishes.

Other stats I found compared reading speed to conversation cadence. Most of us talk at about 150 wpm which, I read, is the optimal spacing for podcasting and audio books. Cattle auctioneers bark at around 250 wpm, and I once worked with a cop who spoke so fast that no one could understand him—probably blurting out about 300 or more. It was a thing of beauty to listen to his evidence in court.

Here are some other speed reading tidbits.US President John Kennedy reportedly read three major newspapers before his morning coffee cooled. JFK’s rate was around 1,100 and he, himself, said it was his ability to skim for what he was interested in. The World Speed Reading Championship has a six-time winner, Anne Jones, who read at 4,200 wpm with a recorded comprehension at 67 percent.

Then there’s Kim Peek. He’s a savant who has memorized over 9,600 books. No one knows how he does it because Kim’s corpus callosum has been missing since birth. That’s the nerve bundle connecting the right and left cerebral hemispheres.

Anyway, back to us mortal writers. We have to read to be able to produce writing. Most of us, myself included, are bookies. We love to read as well as write. Like me, you’re probably a closet bibliomaniac who practices the art of tsundoku. (I linked these words to Wikipedia—you’re welcome.)

Another quote, while I’m in quoting mode, is from Stephen King himself who savantly said, “To be a good writer you must do two things. Read a lot and write a lot. If you don’t have the time for reading, then you do not have the tools for writing.” I’ll take King’s advice any day, but the 64-thousand dollar question is, “How do I read quickly but still write efficiently?”

To start with, there are certain limitations built into us writing mortals. They involve interactions between the eye and the brain. Brains are linguistically programmed through instinct. We naturally learn to speak. However, we have to be taught to read, and then we have to practice. A lot, if we’re going to be good readers who can efficiently transpose information into intelligible writing.

When you look at images on a page—letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, and symbols—light reflects from the page or screen to the back of your retina. Here a tiny, dot-like feature called your fovea centralis takes the information and passes it to your cerebral cortex for processing. Your cortex decides whether to use the information, store it, or chuck it.

As amazing as your fovea is, it has a limited capacity to function with speed. Foveas are focused fellas, and they only see about three words at a time. That’s because only so much light passes into cell cones in the center of the fovea. Light coming from peripheral page regions, like words to the left and right, fades into the fog of cell rods that aren’t so good at transmitting useful reading information.

There’s more to this reading science than meets the eye. You’re programmed to read in small chunks at a time. Reading scientists call this fixations and saccades. Fixations are the spots where your fovea stops and saccades are the jerk actions between the stops that keep your eye moving across the page.

From what I read and retained, your fovea fixation lasts from about a quarter-second to a full-second. This depends on your mental focus and how much your brain decides that particular info-bit is worth to you. A saccade period is about a tenth-second. Saccades are pretty predictable, and the only control you have is to decide how much you want to skim.

You can’t will or teach your fovea to act faster or look farther. It’s only going to take in about three words between stops. What you can do, however, is to exercise your cortex to retain more, and that comes from reading lots.

When you read a lot, you become more familiar with words that your brain can find useful. You expand your vocabulary as well as your overall knowledge. More understood and informative words equals higher efficiency when it comes to reading fast and retaining more. However, there comes a point where you’re reading too fast and miss too much.

So, is there such a thing as efficient speed reading? A balance? Well, let’s look back to where this craze came from and went to. Travel back to 1958 and meet Evelyn Wood who wrote Reading Skills. She was a Utah school teacher who used a three-point system to make her kids better readers. Evelyn recognized these three efficient reading methods:

Method 1 — Take more information in at a time. She encouraged scanning by moving a finger or pen across a page to increase saccade action.

Method 2 — Eliminate subvocalization. This is the little voice in your head that wants to read out loud rather than be still and absorb information.

Method 3 — Eliminate regressive eye movements. Evelyn encouraged students to read it right the first time and not to keep going back over things.

Evelyn Wood was probably the mother of all speed reading courses. She went on to offer Reading Dynamics and made a ton of money by teaching adults to read faster and absorb better. Some historians question Wood’s effectiveness at significantly improving speed, but you can’t argue with her worldwide exposure.

Forward to 2020 and the app age. This speed reading thing hasn’t gone away. Google “speed reading” and you’ll find tools like Spritz, Spreeder, Outread, Acceleread, and Reedy to help reduce your TBR pile. Do any of these apps really work? I don’t know, because I have my own system for researching and writing that I’d like to share with you.

As I mused, there’s a balance between time and efficiency. It depends on what you want to do with your reading material. I’m not one to “speed read” a novel, but it pays to rip through resource material as quickly as possible to write an article like this.

Case Study: Is Speed Reading Efficient for Writers?

I spent five hours researching this post. I have a fair amount of experience doing online articles, as I spent two years working with my daughter in her content writing agency. That business pays by the article. Not the word count or by time. A typical content piece is 2,200 words and to make a decent hourly return, you have to be somewhat speedy in reading your research.

I used the keywords “Speed Read” to “Google” information. I found 14 suitable articles online ranging from Psychology Wiki (which I had no idea existed—you’re welcome again) to Wired, Lifehacker, and the BBC. I copied the content and pasted it on a Word.doc which is what I religiously do for research. I formatted the doc in Ariel 10 point with 1.15 spacing and set the color on black with a white background.

Then, I printed each article on 8 ½ x 11 and went at them with a yellow highlighter and a red pen. I used a side page for black-inked notes. By this time, my cortex knew what it was looking for so, as my fovea followed my saccade spacing, I yellow-highlighted interesting stuff and red underlined really interesting stuff. I then made black notes of key points and I moved it along.

The printed 14 documents contained 21,823 words. That’s an average of 1,559 per piece. Out of the 5 hours in research time, about 2 ½ were spent in reading the printed docs and making notes. 2 ½ hours is 150 minutes, so my words-per-minute was 145. That’s no speed demon by any measure.

However, my comprehension, retention, and piece production were (in my opinion) reasonably efficient. Sure, I could probably have scanned the stuff at 3 times the rate. But, I wouldn’t have been able to efficiently write this 1,593-word article in 1.75 hours. That’s composing at 906 words per hour or 15.1 words per minute.

Do I have room to increase my writing efficiency? Certainly. Probably we all do. But is speed reading to save research time worth the reduced value of the final product? I say no.

What about you Kill Zoners? What’s your view on speed reading, and what tips on writing efficiency do you have? Please drop them in the comment box.

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Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner investigating sudden, strange, and unexplained deaths. Now Garry has reinvented himself as an indie writer who’s working on a series of based-on-true-crime stories. His latest venture, Beyond The Limits – Book #7, is scheduled for release in early January, 2021.

Besides writing at the Kill Zone and on his popular blog at www.DyingWords.net, Garry Rodgers spends his spare time putting around the saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. To his aghast, there was a skim of frost on Garry’s windshield this morning.