By Barbara Falconer Newhall
Lauren Winner, author of the popular memoir Girl Meets God, was in San Francisco last weekend giving advice to religion scholars on how to write books for a general audience.
Lauren is an academic — she’s assistant professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke Divinity School — but much of her advice to the scholars gathered for the American Academy of Religion conference last weekend applies nicely to us non-academic, learn-as-you-go writers.
1. Procrastination can work for you. Lauren wrote Girl Meets God while a student. Writing is what she did when she couldn’t settle down to study.
2. Figure out who your audience is, write to that audience. Better yet, write to a real or imaginary specific person who embodies that audience.
3. Good prose can make any topic interesting. Improve your writing by reading a lot in your genre. But make sure you’re reading well written prose, because it rubs off. Lauren likes Jill Lepore’s New Yorker writing.
4. Start small. Aim big. Write for a neighborhood newsletter. Work your way up the ladder to local newspapers and then to national magazines. Hope for the New Yorker.
5. Buy books. It will help keep the industry alive long enough to be there for you when your book is ready.
6. When you send out your proposal, send along a photo of yourself.
7. When your book is published, spend a couple thousand dollars — if you can — to buy copies to send to key members of your core audience. She sent one of hers to college chaplains at Christian colleges.
Some other scholar-author types joined Lauren on the panel, which was sponsored by Publishers Weekly. My wise and fun-loving Religion Newswriters Association colleague, Marcia Z. Nelson, moderated.
Michael Coogan of Harvard University suggested refining your writing style and building a readership by talking to groups. He also noted that it’s OK to write a book that’s already been written (including the ones you’ve written yourself) because, “There are always new audiences.”
Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College, recommended investing in an alarm clock. Budget time to write, then write till the alarm goes off.
Kirstin Swenson of the University of Virginia reminds us that “You gotta write what you want to write.”