Insights from a Bestselling Ghostwriter
“In workshop, we say, ‘reader first,’ and I lean heavily on that. I say, that’s your touchstone. So, whenever they’re not doing it, I’ll say, what does your reader need? The reader needs more of you.” —AJ Harper
AJ Harper always wanted to become a playwright. She loved the dialogue, the performance aspect, and the collaboration that comes with playwriting. When her son was born, she realized she needed to find a way to make more consistent money. She made the shift to ghostwriting and found that her experiences as a playwright helped her become successful in this new area.
In this episode of “Authors Who Lead,” I talk to AJ about messy first drafts, editing your own work, being vulnerable on the page, and about her new book, Write a Must-Read: Craft a Book That Changes Lives—Including Your Own.
How Writing a Book Can Transform You
Most authors want their books to make an impact on their readers but soon realize that the real magic comes when that book transforms them first. As they work through their core message and see that they do truly have something to talk about, a-ha moments can change them. I believe anyone can write a book that is transformational, but they have to put in the work and let their true selves be seen and be vulnerable on the page.
AJ warns authors that it will feel uncomfortable as they allow their book to transform them. Although ultimately rewarding, the process will be challenging in many ways. But if they release any expectations of what writing a book should look like, it will be a life-changing experience.
Why You Should Write a “Dirty First Draft”
Anne Lamott famously said that she likes to write “a shitty first draft” in order to “quiet the voices” in her head. This sounds freeing to write without worry, but when authors sit down to write, they may still believe they could be the exception to this and that their draft will be miraculously less shitty. But if we try to make this first draft perfect, it either will not get written or will feel forced and inauthentic. We need to get that first draft down on the page before we judge its quality.
I tell my authors that I only write shitty drafts now because it takes away any expectations. We can write freely and authentically when we don’t expect it to be perfect the first time around. I learned this the hard way when I was told my first book would be a bestseller. That expectation of what my book “should” be weighed on me, and it took years to finally get to the point now where I’m almost finished writing it.
The Editing Journey
Once you have your first dirty draft on the page, then you can edit it. Before any editor sees it, I encourage my authors to do their own edits. AJ agrees with this, and she actually teaches her students to do seventeen passes of edits. There are many things to focus on in each of these passes, but they will always be done with the reader in mind.
An important focus for edits is the core message of your book. Does everything in your book support your core message and the promise you’re giving your readers? This is the foundation of your book, and it’s important to pay attention to. You should definitely read about this editing focus in AJ’s book as she addresses this idea very well.
Once you have these edits done, then you can hand your manuscript over to an editor. There are many types of editors, so you’ll need to figure out what kind you need. The better you’ve self-edited your book, the easier it is for the editor to come in and really see what your book should become.
The Secret to Success
After working with authors for over seventeen years, AJ finds that the most important factor to an author’s success is persistence. Both good books and crappy books can become successful because “the author was persistent in getting the message out.”
So, just start. There is no perfect time or age to start your book. When I was a teacher, I had my students write their own books. They gained confidence and learned more by writing and publishing than if I had red-lined and edited their words.
If you would like to write a book that makes an impact, remember these greatest takeaways from my conversation with AJ:
1. Write that first dirty draft: Allow the process to transform you first.
2. Self-edit that dirty draft: Think about your core message and what the reader needs as you edit.
3. Be honest, authentic, and vulnerable in your book: Your book is your message, not the words on the page.
What was your biggest takeaway from this episode? Are you writing a book to make an impact? Share in the comments below!
That’s all for this week. If you have a message inside of you that needs to be written, today is the day to start. Don’t delay—take action.
Get a copy of the books mentioned here:
Write a Must-Read: Craft a Book That Changes Lives—Including Your Own
Profit First: Transform Your Business from a Cash-Eating Monster to a Money-Making Machine