What Does “Show, Don’t Tell” Mean in Writing?

You’ve written a piece you adore. The language flows, and it’s wonderfully descriptive. Your editor (or teacher) then comes back with, “Show me, don’t tell me!” 

Seriously? You’ve heard that same critique a thousand times. Don’t worry. All writers have found those dreaded words on their drafts. What are they looking for?

Let’s get to the bottom of this and figure out what “show, don’t tell” really means in writing once and for all. 

Defining Telling Vs. Showing

“Don’t tell readers what to feel. Show them the situation and that feeling will awaken in them.”– Natalie Goldberg in “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within”

The gist of the “show, don’t tell” philosophy is to immerse your reader in the story rather than describe the story to them. While you may think you’ve written some beautifully descriptive prose, it is still you reporting the scene to your reader.

Instead, you want to show what the character is experiencing by embracing the senses and body language.

Consider these examples:

Telling: “Daren was nervous while taking the written exam. His constant fidgeting disturbed all of the other students.”

Showing: “Daren gnawed on the thumbnail of his left hand while his right hand drummed his pencil on his desk. Suddenly, he could feel the narrowed eyes of 19 other students all locked on him.”

Telling: “Monica looked in the mirror once she had the new dress on. She loved it! It made her feel like dancing.”

Showing: “When Monica looked in the mirror, her eyes twinkled, and she couldn’t help but to twirl and step to an imaginary tune and watch the dress flair out like a flower in the wind.”

The key is to not tell the reader that your character is nervous or happy, show your reader how your character displays those emotions.

The “show, don’t tell” idea isn’t limited to your characters, either. Even your descriptions of settings and exposition benefit greatly by following this advice.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” —Anton Chekhov

Indicators to Watch for and Tips for Fixing Them

While there is no fool-proof method for nailing down showing vs. telling entirely, since it can be a bit subjective, there are some red flags you can watch for as you edit your writing.

Here are some of the indicators that you’re telling and need to bring the reader in more.

Naming an emotion

Anytime you see an emotion named in your writing, you’re telling. He loved that girl. She was overcome with guilt. Judy was furious with her sister.

Don’t tell us he loved her, show us how he eats key lime pie—even though he prefers apple—just because key lime is her favorite. You get the picture.

“Good writers may “tell” about almost anything in fiction except the characters’ feelings.” —John Gardner

Boring Verbs

Using a boring verb with the help of an adverb (She walked quietly to the edge of the window and looked in.) is telling. A strong verb (She slunk to the window, peeking just over the sill.) is showing.

Scan your writing for adverbs and dull verbs and replace them with fun, exciting verbs that convey your message better. A boring verb with an adverb is like adding garnish to a dull entrée.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” — Stephen King


Adjectives describe or modify a noun. Thus, by their very definition they are reporters. “The morning air was cold, and the sunrises shone bright.” Yawn! How about, “The morning air tickled her nostrils with a chill and the crimson and yellow sunrise made her squint.”

“Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description.” — C.S. Lewis


Frequently, you can achieve a better effect with fewer words. One great verb is better than a dull one with an adverb attached.

If you find your sentences getting a little long, consider where you could tighten things up by adding more sensory details.

Pro Tips and Tricks

Image by wiredsmartio from Pixabay

Learning how to consistently show instead of telling isn’t easy and won’t happen like flipping a switch. It takes practice.

While you are writing your first draft, you don’t need to concern yourself with it. Let that draft flow. The real work comes in the editing.

Here are a few tips and tricks for spotting opportunities to show instead of tell.

Think Small

Anytime you find yourself writing about something big, whether it’s the panoramic view of a mountain range or a concept like love or freedom, narrow your focus.

Finding something small to zero in on as a representative of the whole can give perspective and make it much more memorable. Give specific sensory details whenever possible.

“Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.” — Ernest Hemingway

Let Dialogue Work for You

How many times have you heard someone say something that told you a lot more than the words actually said?

Word choices, a tone of voice, or even words left unsaid can show you more than a paragraph of exposition. Who doesn’t remember this scene in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”?

Princess Leia: “I love you!”

Han Solo: “I know.”

If you knew nothing else about Han Solo at that point in the saga, you now know without a doubt that he’s no starry-eyed kid. He’s a bit of a rogue (and we love him for it!).

Get Moving

When you want to set a scene, the simple choice is to describe it as your character or narrator sees it. But it’s more dynamic to show the scene as action happens.

“Billy sat next to his dad at the overcrowded ballpark. Though the game was exciting, he felt suffocated and overwhelmed.”


“Billy clutched his giant foam finger tightly as the pitcher unleashed a fastball. With a crack of the bat the crowd jumped to its feet and Billy was knocked into his dad by the men next to and behind him. He clutched the foam finger tighter as the smells of stale beer and body odor choked him.”


Now that we’ve figured out the difference and how to get it right, why does showing vs. telling matter?

  • It’s more interesting. Think of a radio sports announcer. The great ones don’t tell you what’s happening; they paint a picture with words so you can see the action. It’s much more interesting.
  • It evokes emotion. We are emotional creatures. Even if your writing is ad copy, always reach for emotion. It’s more memorable and more fun.
  • Showing builds interest and suspense. Telling is reporting. The reader doesn’t get to fill in the blanks themself.
  • It pulls the reader into the story. You don’t want your reader to simply read your story, you want them to live it. You want to draw them in to feel like they are there right beside your protagonist smelling the same smells and feeling those same emotions.

Now it’s time to put it to the test. Challenge yourself!

Dive into one piece of your writing and go through the first page or first chapter and look for those indicators like weak verbs or named emotions.  Do your best to cut out places where you are telling and create vivid writing that shows instead.

Now, bask in the glow of your new and improved writing. Great job!

10+ (More) Great Books Every Aspiring Writer Should Read

Writers love to read about writing. From advice on mastering their craft, to memoirs of writers, and even straight-up grammar tips, books about writing are a major part of every aspiring writer’s library.

The Writers For Hire writer, Jennifer Rizzo, told us about “5 Great Books Every Aspiring Writer Should Read,” and they were great suggestions, but there are a lot more fantastic books on writing out there.

So, once you’ve devoured those five books, here are 10 more that are well-worth your time.

Some will teach you new things. Others will motivate and inspire you to creative genius! (Well, that’s the hope, anyway!) And all of them will help you be a better writer for having read them.

1. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott

If you are a writer, dream of being a writer, or just like writers, this is a must-read book.

Lamott has a friendly, unabashed style that makes you feel like you’re chatting over drinks with a buddy and getting the inside scoop. You’ll be inspired, educated, and highly entertained.

If you doubt it, just skim the chapter called “Polaroids.” If that doesn’t grab you, nothing will.

2. Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg

Much like “Bird by Bird,” Goldberg’s book is an instructional writing book that is filled with personal anecdotes that are witty, charming, and filled with insight.

It’s not all grounded in sentence structure, either. Chapters like “Don’t Use Writing to Get Love” are very personal and go well beyond the page. It’s a great book for beginners who are trying to find their own voice.

3. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation – Lynne Truss

Truss’s “Eats, Shoots, & Leaves” is a book about punctuation that spent 25 weeks on the New York Times Best-Seller list in 2004. I’ll pause to let you mull that over.

A bemoaning of the slipping attention to correct punctuation, this book is funny, but also imminently useful.

If you struggle with commas, semi-colons, or any part of punctuation in the English language, Truss probably tackles it in this book and provides simple, fool-proof methods to remember the rules.

And if you’re curious about that title, just google the “Panda eats, shoots and leaves joke.”

4. Robert’s Rules of Writing – Robert Masello

As you start to venture down the trail of becoming a writer, you will undoubtedly be bombarded with rules.

From instructors to successful writers and even well-intentioned relatives, rules like “You have to write every day!” and “Show, don’t tell!” will start to pile up in your mental file cabinet.

Robert Masello wrote his book “Robert’s Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know” to add to your file while blowing up some of the rules you thought you knew. For example:

  • Rule 13: Stop Reading
  • Rule 52: Lose Your Form
  • Rule 97: Spill Your Secrets

5. On Writing Well – William Zinsser

Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” is less focused on the fiction crowd and zeroes in on storytelling in non-fiction writing. It’s loaded with educational features focusing on the craft of writing, including different forms like memoir and travel writing.

There are countless tips and tricks that writers can put to use in their writing to make it absolutely shine.

If you enjoy writing non-fiction, this is a must-read.

6. The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron

This book looks at the creative process and working towards improving creativity.

Subtitled “A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity,” Cameron’s book is a faith-based approach to finding your creativity using a 12-week program.

“The Artist’s Way” is categorized as a self-help book and made it onto selfhelp.fm’s Top 100 Self Help Books of All Time list.

If you’re looking to develop your creative life and are willing to put in some effort, “The Artist’s Way” and its accompanying workbook could be just what you need.

7. The Writing Life – Annie Dillard

Instead of being an instructional book, “The Writing Life” by Annie Dillard is a sneak peek behind the curtain into a writer’s life as she does her work.

It’s not always pretty, either. Actually, it’s rarely pretty.

It’s difficult, frustrating, and oftentimes overwhelming, but the anecdotes help you understand just what to expect if you’re going to live as a writer and how to persevere.

If you love raw and honest writing, this one is for you.

8. Everybody Writes – Ann Handley

Ann Handley is a web content influencer. Rather than writing novels or short stories, her genre is the blog post and the social media ad.

This book is simple and straightforward and full of tips to help anyone write better, whether you’re trying to market your own business or just look a little smarter on Twitter.

You’ll brush up on your grammar and gain insight into content-marketing techniques.

9. The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler

Christopher Vogler started this book as a memo for Disney executives as he worked on The Lion King 26 years ago. (Can you believe The Lion King is that old?) It’s essentially a reworking of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” made more approachable and relevant for today’s screenwriters.

You don’t have to be writing for the screen to appreciate the useful tips and strategies laid out in “The Writer’s Journey.” This book should be on every writer’s desk.

10. Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process – Edited by Joe Fassler

What happens when you ask a bunch of successful writers to pinpoint one of the most influential passages they’ve ever read? This book happens.

With entries by Stephen King, Amy Tan, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, and a couple of dozen more writers, “Light the Dark” is a fascinating and inspiring read.

Each writer discusses a piece of writing that not only moved them but changed them somehow. Each entry is an easy 5-10-minute read, which makes a great choice for jump starting each day with a dose of inspiration.

Bonus Books

A lot of writing doesn’t end up on bestseller lists. It’s done with a different purpose in mind. If you want help learning how to take your writing from good to amazing in a specific field, try one of these great reads.

Write, Publish, Repeat: The No-Luck Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success – Sean Platt, Johnny B. Truant with David Wright.

Self-publishing is more common, and more accepted, than ever. But it can still be a bit confusing to the first-timer. This book walks you through it step by step.

Words that Sell: More than 6,000 Entries to Help You Promote Your Products, Services, and IdeasRichard Bayan

Think of this as a copywriter’s thesaurus. It’s an absolute gem to keep close by your computer.

The Copywriters Handbook – Bob Bly

A standard for copywriters, this is everything you need to know to turn your words into sales.

The Wizard of Ads – Roy Williams

Fun to read with very short chapters, “The Wizard of Ads” dives into the strategies involved with writing truly great and memorable ads.

Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose – Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee

Writing for the web is a lot different than writing for the printed page. This book is a primer for understanding the language of the internet.

Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need – Blake Snyder

“Save the Cat!” is an insider’s guide to writing for the screen, with funny takes on everything from loglines to rules he calls “screenplay physics.” Despite the title, Snyder wrote five more companion books for this one.  

Writers’ Tips for Working from Home

Ever since COVID-19 lockdowns started in March of 2020 and forced many people to work from home, the internet has been full of hilarious memes. From jokes about doing Zoom calls in your pajamas, to cartoons depicting parents trying to work with kids in the house, it’s clear that the switch from the office to working remotely has been a challenge for many.

There is one group of people who are well versed in the art of working from home, though. Those people are writers!

With frequent deadlines hanging over their heads, writers are no stranger to hunkering down and isolating in order to get their work done.

In this great blog from The Guardian, they take some of the best work-from-home advice from great writers and compile it to help readers manage their work and thrive during these crazy times.

While some of the tips, such as making sure to get plenty of sleep and exercise, may seem obvious, the blog also provides helpful advice, such as getting the hard things done first and quarantining yourself from the internet and social media.

Although many people have been working from home for the better part of this year, it’s hard to not feel overwhelmed at times. But don’t lose faith in yourself.  After all, William Shakespeare wrote one of his greatest works—King Lear—while quarantining during the Plague. So, if he can do it, so can you!

Understanding Active and Passive Voice in Writing

TIME’s spell-check always admonishes me whenever I compose a sentence in the passive voice, a warning that is often ignored by me.” — Richard Corliss, film critic for TIME magazine

There are certain writing tips or admonishments that writers hear so often that they’ve become almost cliché:

“Show don’t tell.” “Write every day.” “Use the active, not the passive voice!”

You may have some idea what active and passive voices are, but how do you define them? And more importantly, why does it matter so much, and is that rule an absolute? If we should never use the passive voice, why does it exist?

Here’s what you need to know about writing in active or passive voice.

What is active voice?

Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” — William Strunk, Jr., author of The Elements of Style

Webster’s online dictionary defines active voice as “the voice used to indicate that the grammatical subject of the verb is performing the action or causing the happening denoted by the verb.”

For example: “The girl rode the pony.” The subject of the verb (the girl) is performing the action denoted by the verb (rode).  The sentence does not have to be simple, nor does the verb have to be grand or physical.  Here are some other examples:

Tyler frequently wears colorful Hawaiian shirts.

Mankind took its first steps on the moon in 1969.

Abby wondered if Devin was going to ask her to the winter dance.

In each of these sentences, the subject of the verb performs the verb action. Tyler wears. Neil Armstrong took. Abby wondered.

You’ll hear some writers and writing instructors say to always use the active voice. It’s clear, straightforward, and strong. It gives a sense of authority to your writing.

When in doubt, it’s your best bet for good writing.

What is passive voice?

“Of writing in passive voice: Like the weather, people talk about it, but nobody seems to be doing much about either one.”— Chris Smith, senior lead communications specialist, Entergy Corporation

Webster defines the passive voice as “asserting that the grammatical subject of a verb is subjected to or affected by the action represented by that verb.”

If you switch my example from above to the passive voice it would be, “The pony was ridden by the girl.” Now, the pony is the subject of the verb, but instead of doing the action (riding) it is being affected by that action (was ridden). This leaves the girl, our former subject, dangling  at the end of the sentence as if she has little importance.

The passive voice tends to use forms of the “be” verb such as “is,” “was,” or “has been.” They are one way of keeping an eye out for passive voice in your writing.

Let’s do the other examples:

Colorful Hawaiian shirts are frequently worn by Tyler.

Mankind’s first steps on the moon were taken in 1969.

If Devin was going to ask her to the winter dance was wondered by Abby.

The first two sentences work, but they lack the energy and directness of their active voice counterparts. The third sentence, with poor Abby, becomes muddled and awkward at best, but it’s not Devin’s fault. It’s the writer’s fault.

If you’re still not clear on how to detect passive voice, Rebecca Johnson, vice president for academic affairs at Marine Corps University, came up with a fun little idea when she was a professor of culture and ethics. “If you can add the phrase “by zombies” after the verb, your sentence has passive voice.”

Let’s try it!

“Tyler frequently wears…by zombies.” Nope. That doesn’t work at all.

“Hawaiian shirts are frequently worn…by zombies.” Look at that. You clearly have a sentence in passive voice (and fun, stylish zombies).

“Mankind took…by zombies.” Again, no.

“Mankind’s first steps on the moon were taken…by zombies.” Yikes, that works, and we have a new idea for a bizarre novel.

“Abby wondered…by zombies.” Even though “wondered” is not a vibrant, energetic verb, it’s still active.

“If Devin was going to ask her to the winter ball was wondered…by zombies.” It works, but we’re left wondering why the zombies are so concerned with Abby’s date prospects.

While these examples may seem a little absurd, you might be surprised at how frequently you slip into the passive voice without meaning to do it.

If you’re unsure whether you are writing in passive voice, try using a grammar check device like Grammarly or the Hemingway Editor to find out. It’s easy to fix and, in most cases, you will end up with better writing.

Why does active vs. passive voice matter?

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

“Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum. Active verbs push hard; passive verbs tug fitfully.”— William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well

So now we get to the million-dollar question: “Why does active or passive voice matter so much?” Here are a few things to consider.

How It Affects Readers

Active voice exudes energy and directness. It helps your readers move along with the writing.

Passive voice usually has the opposite effect. It is wordy and indirect, which makes your readers slow down. It also makes your writing more difficult to follow as your readers try to figure out who did what to whom.  As you’d expect, this means that your reader has to work harder, is less engaged, and therefore is more likely to simply stop reading.

No matter what you are writing, be it a thriller novel or a set of instructions for assembling a barbecue grill, you never want your reader to stop reading before the end!

How It Affects Characters

If you write fiction or creative non-fiction, your characters will suffer from too much use of passive voice as well.

Instead of being instigators of action, it will seem as if they are just along for the ride. They’re not doing stuff; instead, stuff is being done by them. This puts the focus on the action and not the character doing it.

How it Represents You as a Writer

Regardless of genre, from novels to ad copy, the word you’ll most frequently see used to describe passive voice in writing is “weak.” Every action comes across as wimpy, sloppy, and even insincere.

As the writer, you may come across the same way. Do you lack confidence in your writing? What are you trying to say?

Just say it instead of backing into it with the passive voice. Your readers will thank you.

Is it ever OK to use passive voice?

Image by dmaxjr0 from Pixabay

Yes! For one, it can break up the rhythm in your writing (in a good way) to add variety. There are also some instances where passive voice makes complete sense.

Let’s say you’re writing a story (true or not) about a boy and his dog. In the early pages, we learn that “Billy found the puppy, whimpering and wet, on the side of the road.” That’s great! We have a book about Billy, and we’ve learned that he found a puppy.

But if you change it:

“The puppy, whimpering and wet, was found on the side of the road by Billy.”

We now have a book about a puppy, and we’ve learned that a boy named Billy found him.

If the focus of your writing is on the recipient of the verb’s action rather than the character doing the verb, the passive voice will keep that focus where you want it. The key is to use it sparingly.

The trick, as with all elements of writing, is to consciously select your approach. Don’t let passive voice simply slip into your writing, or your writing will suffer for it.

Choose when and where you want to utilize it to maximize its effect and strengthen your work. Or, if you’re still in doubt, follow the advice of Stephen King:

“The timid fellow writes The meeting will be held at seven o’clock because that somehow says to him, “Put it this way and people will believe you really know.” Purge this quisling thought! Don’t be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write: The meeting’s at seven. There, by God! Don’t you feel better?” — Stephen King in “On Writing”

The Numbers Behind the Words: Can You Make Money Writing Non-Fiction Books?

We all know an awful lot about something. It’s just the way people are.

Your area of expertise might be something useful, like knowing how to fix cars, or it might be something less tangible, say, an obscene amount of knowledge about cartoons from the late 1970s to the early 1980s (ruh roh, Raggy!).

Whatever the case may be, chances are that people come to you from time to time to ask your opinion about something related to your area of expertise.

Even folks who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves an authority in anything have this happen.

For some, once they hit a certain level of knowledge on a topic, the logical next step is to sit down and start writing about it.

Writing a non-fiction book can be a great way to expand on your knowledge of something and, best of all, show off how much you know about something (in a good way, not a braggy way).

Even in the digital age, when everyone is jumping on the internet to write blogs about what they know, we’re still seeing a lot of books hitting the market. In 2019 alone, more than 650 million books were sold!

But, even with all those books entering the market every year, how possible is it to actually make a living as a non-fiction writer?

Is it still possible to dedicate your life to writing about topics that you care about? Or do you have to live out your dream by supplementing your writing with a job at the mall?

Let's Take a Closer Look at the Money

The traditional book route

1. Getting a book deal.

For most of us, when we dream about writing a book, we dream about just that: a book.

Dust covers, author photos, hardcovers (and soft) and, paper pages.

Glorious, glorious pages.

It’s only natural that this is the first thing that comes to mind because, despite ebooks gaining in popularity in the last 10 or so years, people still love to get their hands on a physical book.

There’s just something about them that drives us to them.

Writers are no different. If you’ve had a dream of writing for any amount of time at all, you’ve probably spent most of that time dreaming about holding a real book with your name all over the cover.

So you decide to go for it.

The first thing that’s going to happen when you manage to snag yourself a book deal is getting an advance (I’ve cut quite a few steps out here, like finding an agent and prepping your submission, but we’re talkin’ money here).

An advance is a kind of loan that publishers use to pay you up front.

In the non-fiction world, you’re typically looking at anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 for your first book.

As the link suggests, this can vary a lot depending on things like your level of authority, any audience you may have, and the timeliness of the topic.

Advances are usually paid out in chunks, typically in thirds.

You get the first third when you sign the contract, the second third when you turn in the manuscript, and the final third when the book is published.

These advances are then paid out by book sales and, if you’re lucky enough to pay out your advance, you start collecting royalties.

Royalties are the percentage of each book sale that an author gets.

This can range from 7.5% to 15% of the retail price depending on the kind of book that’s being sold (hardcover vs. mass market paperback vs. trade paperback vs. ebook, etc.) and the publisher.

Since all deals tend to be different, let’s say you’ve just released a book that sells for $30 as a hardcover.

If your royalty is 10%, you get $3 for each book sold.

Now, let’s also say you managed to secure a $15,000 advance.

That means you’d have to sell 5,000 copies of your book to earn out your advance.

Any books that you sell after that 5,000th book means money in the bank for you.

2. Writing your book.

OK. So, you’ve signed the contract and collected you first payment. Now what?

Well, now you write.

That initial chunk of the advance is meant to help you get through the writing phase. A non-fiction book can be a big, long, project, and it helps to have a bit of financial freedom from your job to get it done.

It’s probably going to take you anywhere from six months to a year to complete your book, depending on how much research you’ve done in advance, how well you know the source material and similar factors.

The first third of your advance is for this section.

Then there’s the editing phase.

You’re looking at another couple of months to get through this. That’s where the second third of your money goes.

3. Promotion time!

The final third of your money comes when you turn in the finished copy of your book.

Once you’ve gotten your book done and publishing dates have been set, it’s promotion time.

Yup, even if you’re with the bigger publishers, writers still end up doing the bulk of the promo work.

This is because with close to a quarter million books hitting the shelves every year, there just aren’t enough marketing people out there.

That, and frankly, no one knows your book like you do.

If you want your book to be successful, you’re going to need to market your book until you’re sick of it.

And, you’re going to have to do it every chance you get.

You’ll talk about it on social media, you’ll tell your friends, their friends, your family, their friends… Chances are, everyone who is even slightly connected to you is going to know that you have a book coming out.

And, if you’re lucky, most of them will buy it.

Going the DIY route

It wasn’t that long ago that self-publishing was seen as a bit of a fool’s errand.

Sure, you might have made some money, but the success stories were few and far between.

Flash forward to today where self-published books have been making great strides in terms of quality, being taken serious by both writers and the general public and, best of all, people have been making money doing this.

Online retailers like Amazon have made it beyond simple to self-publish a book and sell it on their site, thanks to things like Kindle Direct publishing.

Unlike the traditional publishing world, you don’t get any money up front when you go the self-publishing route.

In fact, all the associated costs of putting the book together—the ones that would have been covered by the publisher in the traditional publishing market—get covered by you.

That means you pay the editors, book designers, cover designers and all that.

All this can be done for just a few hundred with turnkey publishing sites, or for tens of thousands with elite editing and publishing services.

The more you put in at this stage, the better the chances of your book looking like it was put out by professionals and not just someone who knows Photoshop (because your book will have been put together by professionals).

But, once that’s taken care of, you get a bigger piece of the pie on the sales end.

Instead of only getting the industry standard of anywhere from 7.5% to 15%, you keep a much higher percentage after the retailer takes their cut.

In the case of Amazon Kindle Direct, you get either 35% or 70% of a sale, depending on the circumstances.

That bigger chunk of sales that you take home is going to help you pay off what was basically your advance faster (the money you spent putting your book together) and will help you start making some money.


What does success look like?

Best seller status is something that most writers dream of at some point or another.

It’s kind of the old school version of going viral, only with books.

Best seller lists are, as you might guess, put together based on how books are selling.

They’re calculated on a weekly basis and the criteria, data gathered, and stores used to calculate these lists tend to vary widely from list to list.

The New York Times, for example, puts together their list based on the sales from vendors across the United States, although the list is reported confidentially, so no one ever really knows for sure which stores are doing the reporting.

USA Today, on the other hand, tells you some of the vendors they rely on for their list.

And those are the easy ones to figure out.

Just look at how Amazon figures out their numbers here.

Go on. I’ll wait for a minute.

Had a look? Great. You probably noticed that for every explanation they have, there were exceptions.

The trouble with bestseller lists is, among other things, is there’s no guaranteeing anything about them.

You could have the best book in the world out there, and your book could still struggle to get on the list because of something, anything that happened in the world that week.

Take a look at the list below (from The New York Times non-fiction list), for example.

Notice that the bestselling non-fiction paper is Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

This list, as it happens, represents the week after Hawking’s death.

Things like this can throw off the momentum of just about any book, regardless of how well it has been doing in the previous week.

According to Bridget Marmion, former senior vice president of marketing for publishing houses such as Fararr, Straus and Giroux, and Random House, and founder of Your Expert Nation, being on a best seller list is always nice, but it should never be your goal.

It’s mostly because of the number of factors at play when determining the lists.

If a movie adaptation of a book happens to be coming out the same week as your book (this can happen in non-fiction as easily as it could happen in fiction, think of movies like Eat Pray Love and Wild), it’ll be a struggle to get your book on the list.

Having said that, if you can get yourself on a best seller list, it can help.

“Being on a list that is important to your audience would move the sales needle, if you’re on it for a few weeks,” says Marmion.

She adds that this can also help you with your next book, as traditional publishers are more likely to take a chance on someone whose book has been on a best seller list.

The burning question (I’m sure) is just how many books does it take to crack a best seller list?

Well, that answer, I’m afraid, is complicated.

It depends on the list, the time of year, what else is happening in the world and a host of other things.

For traditional lists like The New York Times or USA Today, those numbers look to be anywhere from 3,000 copies to 5,000 copies sold.

Getting into the Amazon Top 5 would require sales of about 300 books a day.

And, to really complicate things, it’s entirely possible to get on an Amazon best seller list by selling very few books because you’re in a category that’s so specific you’re essentially on your own.

Just check out the example located towards the end here, which hit the best seller list with only three books sold.

These numbers aren’t high, but most books, especially debut books, don’t even come close to selling that many books.

Few books earn out their advances, which means they sell enough books to pay off the advance, and the numbers for average books sold can be as little as 250 books (although like everything in the publishing industry, there’s a lot of factors at play in figuring out exact numbers like that).

So...now you've got a book out


It’s a great feeling being able to hold a book with your name on the front of it (trust me, I know).

At this point, you need to decide what it is you want to do with that book.

If you want that book to make money, you need to market it.

In fact, you should have started marketing it, like, six months before it came out.

Unless you’re an established name in your industry, traditional publishing houses aren’t going to put too much effort into marketing your book.

With the sheer number of books hitting the shelves every year, publishers just don’t have the time or resources to do that.

You have to be prepared to hustle and self-promote your book to make it work.

If you have any authors, fiction or non-fiction, on your social media feeds, you’ve seen them doing this before.

It takes a lot of time and energy to make it work, but if you want your book to succeed, you have to be ready.

As if this didn’t seem daunting enough, according to Nick Morgan, who helps thought leaders and public speakers publish books (among other things), most publishers give a book about two weeks to make money.

After that, a book gets remaindered, which is when a book is sent off to discount books stores or remainder bins in book stores.

That means you really have to hit the ground running with your book if you hope to get a second book, or even earn back your advance.

This can leave a lot of authors feeling betrayed, especially when you add the fact that publishers don’t really promote books enough to help you succeed.

Luckily, all is not lost.

It’s possible to use your book to help you earn money doing something else. The trick, according to Morgan, is figuring out what that something else is.

Having a book (or two) to your name is never a bad thing.

Among other things, a book helps people understand that you really know what you’re talking about, and solidifies your status as an expert in your field.

Not just anyone can sit down and write a book. It takes a solid understanding and a very firm grasp of your topic to produce a quality book.

A book helps you stake a claim as someone who is an authority on a topic.

This can be especially helpful early on in your career, when people often struggle to be taken seriously and even to make a good living.

As Morgan puts it, “You have to establish expertise via a book.” From there, you can leverage that book to grow your career.

This extra level of authority helps you almost regardless of what you do.

People are more likely to trust a vet who’s written about a pet care over one who hasn’t.

A motivational speaker who has a book is not only going to be able to charge more because of their book, but people are going to listen more. Same if you’re a journalist or a politician or an athlete.

All this means is that you have to know going in what you hope you get out of your book.

If you’re going into it expecting success and sacks full of money to start arriving at your door on the day it’s published, you’re probably going to end up disappointed.

But, if you’re willing to do the work that needs to be done (like the marketing) or you’re writing a book to help bolster some other aspect of your career, then your book is going to help you make money.

It might not be tons of money, not to start, but, like all things publishing, if you’re willing to play the long game and build up a following using that first book, it’s going to get easier and easier to make money with each subsequent book.

Coronavirus Response: How and Why to Ramp Up Your Blog Content Quickly

As more and more Americans self-quarantine or are asked to work from home, online activity is skyrocketing. In fact, from January 29 to April 8,  usage rates rose 105 percent (from 22.6 million people to 46.2 million people in the U.S. using the internet during peak hours).

While the circumstances aren’t ideal, most business owners are asking themselves how they can capture the attention of all of those online browsers. In other words, it’s time to think about how you can attract those new visitors and grow your business (or brand). Even though it’s true that more people are surfing the web, it’s also true that how you approach your content during this sensitive time can determine the future health of your brand.

To Pivot or Not to Pivot

People’s interests have shifted during the pandemic, and content creators should consider this shift when creating their content over the next few weeks or months.  In general, content creators have two choices: pivot or don’t pivot. For some, pivoting will be easy because virus-related content easily fits in with their current content. For example, a business that focuses on working from home could write articles that include information about overcoming social isolation.  For others, pivoting their content may be more difficult.  Or, perhaps, your company believes pivoting to coronavirus-inspired content feels unnatural, contrived, or just downright tacky. 


Those who can easily pivot their content may have an advantage during this unusual time. For instance, hunker.com typically publishes articles about home design and improvement. But the site has recently changed its content to keep up with the new demand trends. Today, you’ll find articles like “Grocery Stores Empty? These Cleaning Solutions Will Help” and “How to Disinfect Your Washing Machine After Being Sick”.

Royal Caribbean is publishing articles such as, “Fun, Royal Caribbean Indoor Activities for Families”.  Verizon Wireless’ latest post is titled, “Everyday heroes help us all, Verizon supports them.”  Amazon has gone so far as to devote an entire blog to coronavirus.

Don’t Pivot

Some companies will continue business as usual and keep putting out the same type of content that they always have.  As of this writing, for example, you’ll find little to no COVID-19-related content on the Costco Blog. Exxon has decided to keep its Energy Perspectives blog content true to its original purpose without straying into coronavirus territory.  Even if you decide to (mostly) ignore the pandemic in your content, you can still ramp up quality content production, which will help your site to take advantage of the global increase in internet traffic.

What Not to Do

Whether or not you decide to write a lot of COVID-content or just a few paragraphs, you will need to learn to be sensitive with your wording and approach.

Here are three things you should avoid in your content:

Don’t Pretend the Pandemic Doesn’t Exist

People’s lives are being affected by the virus, and companies that come off as insensitive may experience a negative impact on their brand. If you completely ignore the current situation, you could publish content that may be considered inappropriate. For example, an article about the best local places to eat out may fall flat, as will an article about arranging travel plans to Europe.  Publishing content like this could cause you to come across as tone-deaf during this crisis.

Don’t Blatantly Use the Coronavirus as a Marketing Tool

It’s natural to want to reach out to your customers and the general public to offer support. But even if your products or services can benefit them in these times, you should be careful in how you approach them through your content. For example, a blog titled “How to Take Advantage of the COVID-19 Quarantine by Using our Data Organization System” will come across as insensitive. Instead of trying to sell consumers something right now, try creating content that helps them get through these trying times. For instance, if you’re the data organization software supplier, you would do better by writing a blog entitled, “5 Ways to Be Productive While Quarantined” and subtly mention your data organization system as one of the talking points.

Don’t Spread Rumors or Criticize Politicians

These are polarizing times, and the last thing you want to do as a business is to take sides or spread rumors that may prove to be false. For example, if you don’t agree with a politician’s actions related to managing support efforts, keep it to yourself. Otherwise, you could end up offending the readers who don’t agree with you.

 You should also be respectful of the consequences of the virus when mentioning it. Only use official sites to relay information and stick to the facts. Some of the official sites you can use for reference are:

What to Do

Successful content creators will focus on a few strategies during the pandemic. Here are some key points to keep in mind as you create your content.

Talk About the Things Important Your Customers

Don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole.  You still need to stay relevant to your customers.  Don’t write about the phases of coronavirus on your pottery website, even if it does show up is an oft-Googled search trend. However, if you run a financial blog, you could write about stock market tips for today’s unruly market. A real estate blogger could publish tips about house showings during quarantine, or a dating site could write articles about how to maintain relationships during social distancing.

Inform People About Your Business—Subtly

Being sensitive doesn’t mean you can’t subtly promote your business. As with the example above, data organization content is helpful and lets consumers know about a product that could help them in this time.  Hunker is continuing to establish its brand as an expert on how to live well in your home, but the content shift is interesting to today’s reader. The key is to give readers the information they want, while in a non-salesy way, informing them how your service or product can help them.

Be Consistent

As we established earlier, people are online a lot these days, and they are establishing new browsing habits. They are looking for sites that offer the most relevant content and are likely visiting those sites again and again. Your goal is to create content that keeps them coming back to your site. Publish daily or weekly, but stick to your schedule so your visitors will know when to come back for more.

Use Content to Strengthen Your Brand

Finally, if you create a page on your website that tells people how your business is responding to the coronavirus, it can give your customers a sense of security regarding your business continuity.  For instance, everyone understands that gig workers are being financially impacted by the virus. Uber did a great job of addressing this problem by creating a page on its website outlining the steps it’s taking to ensure the financial well-being of its drivers.

A “coronavirus-response page” can also showcase how your business is helping your local community.  If you are donating medical supplies to your local hospitals, talk about it on your website. If you are organizing a food drive for the local community, be sure to mention it on your site. Or if you are taking care of your employees by allowing them to work from home, let the public know about it.  Just be sure that when you mention these things, you don’t come across as self-serving. Instead, focus on your community and the people you are serving.

5 Ways to Quickly Ramp Up Your Content

Now that we’ve talked about the do’s and don’ts for content creation during the pandemic, let’s talk about how to ramp up your content to reach all those people who are online most of the day.

Here is a 5-step plan to help boost your content fast:

1. Think About What Your Audience Needs Right Now

We’ve talked about the topics people are searching for right now, and if you can write content to match those needs, you are ahead of the game. You will first need to understand your customers and then determine how your brand can help meet their needs. For instance, if you sell pet supplies, you can write articles about how to exercise your dog during quarantine, how to keep your pets clean and, using the latest scientifically backed research, whether pets can transmit the disease to humans.

2. Create an Editorial Calendar

It’s always a good idea to create an editorial calendar when running a blog, but if you’re going to ramp up your content, it’s even more essential. First, determine how often you want to publish, and then begin thinking of the topics you will cover. This will require some brainstorming and research about what people are currently reading. Use Excel to create a spreadsheet or just make a list of your content for the next month or so. When you use an editorial calendar, it reduces the time spent on each article and allows you to concentrate on the writing.

3. Use Social Media and SEO to Increase Your Reach

If you want to bring more people to your blog, expand its reach by posting your blogs to social media. This will allow others to share your content. You can use any social media platforms you want—but the bigger your audience, the better this tactic will work for you. For instance, you can create a live steam on Twitter to talk about the highlights of your article or post your blog to Facebook or LinkedIn.

Also, using Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a great way to drive traffic to your site from the search engines. Use a keyword tool to determine the best keywords for your article and then use them in the title, headers, and content. And if you use more than one keyword, it will increase the visibility of your article.

4. Open Up Communication with Your Readers

Everyone is isolated right now and craving communication with others—even if it’s online. One way to offer that is to open up the comments on your post and interact with your readers. Starting conversations with the people who leave comments is a great way to build your brand and readership. In addition, use your social media accounts to communicate with your readers by encouraging comments and then responding to them.

5. Hire Professional Writers to Keep Up with Content Creation

If the thought of creating additional content seems overwhelming, think about hiring professional writers to do the job for you. If you’re not used to writing, creating a daily or weekly blog can take a lot of time. But experienced writers have it down to an art—and they will make you look good without your ever having to write a single word.

Are You Ready to Ramp Up Your Content?

Even though more people are online, only savvy business owners will benefit from increased internet traffic. If you want to get more eyes on your blog and build your brand, be sure to follow the above steps and advice!

7 Unusual Ways To Improve Your Writing

As with every form of art, we writers are constantly working to improve our craft.

From reading the works of great writers to attending writing workshops and checking out the latest and greatest grammar rules and regulations, we try very hard to stay at the top of our writing game.

In our never-ending search for interesting new ways to help us grow as writers, we came across this inspiring article from The Writing Cooperative on 7 unusual tips that will “explode” your writing skills. The article suggest things such as hand-copying the works of great writers, as well as breaking down entire novels and analyzing the complete portfolios of successful writers.

33 of the Best Free Font Downloads for Writers

As writers, we are generally limited in the fonts that we can use. While a fancy font may seem more fun and exciting than the basic Arial, Times New Roman, or Calibri, we have to be sure that the fonts we use can be easily read and understood.

Every once in a while, though, we have the opportunity to color outside the lines and use a font that has a bit more pizzazz. On those occasions, it is important that we find a font that is not only perfect for the particular project we are working on, but is also free to use.

This awesome blog from Hubspot.com has proven to be the perfect go-to for great font downloads that are also free. They have come up with a list of 33 of the best free fonts, and have even provided samples of each, to make it easier to decide which one(s) you want.

Copywriter Q&A: RFP Survival, Success, and Lessons Learned with Shelly Spencer

TWFH team member Shelly Spencer has more than two decades of experience in RFP writing and has worked with up-and-coming organizations and non-profits with budgets of $30 million per year. One thing she’s learned? Although RFPs can vary greatly in terms of subject matter, industry, length, and format, the process of preparing a response is essentially the same across the board — and your chances of success really come down to a few key elements.

Shelly sat down with us recently and was gracious enough to answer some of our burning questions about surviving — and thriving — as you navigate the complicated process of crafting a killer proposal.  

TWFH: How long have you been writing RFPs?

SS: I started out grant writing, and that morphed into RFPs as well. I got started mid-2000s; I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years. My RFP clients were pretty much all nonprofit, although I did some for-profit as well. I liked the idea of working with nonprofits. They’re in the business of helping people, helping the community, and doing good for the greater good.

TWFH: Is there a difference between writing RFPs for nonprofits, versus other types of businesses and organizations?

SS: They’re pretty much the same. All you have to do is follow the instructions. They are usually very specific in their instructions: They require one-inch margins, 12-point font. You have to put in this format in this order, you have to title it this way.

TWFH: What is the most challenging part of an RFP response?

SS: Some RFPs have a tendency to ask the same thing in different sections, so you find yourself trying to answer all of the questions, but not in a way that sounds like you’re repeating yourself. Getting creative with that can be a challenge.

Another challenge is that some RFPs ask for very specific, quantifiable results. They want to know your outcomes and outputs, and they want a very clear understanding of what you’re going to produce. Some organizations don’t always track those things; their programs can be hard to quantify. I have one RFP client who runs a food bank, and they started a community garden where women veterans volunteer and grow crops. It’s a great program, but we had to provide numbers; the pounds of crops produced, how many people are served, how many veterans work there. They want to do good, which is great — but you also have to focus on the numbers and details.

TWFH: What are some of the most common mistakes people make when responding to RFPs?

SS: Probably one of the biggest mistakes in responding to RFPs is bidding on a project that doesn’t fit. If you’re stretching beyond what is reasonable, it’s not worth it. RFPs take a lot of time, and it can be disappointing if you get to a place where you have to say, “We just don’t fit.” But you have to be realistic. I’ve seen some clients who try to “throw a program at money” and put something together willy-nilly to fit what the RFP is looking for. Rather than, “this is what we do,” it becomes, “let’s create a program because there’s money out there.”

TWFH: What is the most misunderstood part of the RFP process?

SS: The terminology can be challenging. The instructions are there — but if you don’t understand RFP terminology, it’ll be harder to follow those instructions. Also, some people don’t realize the extensive nature of RFPs. There’s the written part, but there are also attachments, budgets, collaboration letters — all of the extra stuff that’s not part of the actual writing process. It’s easy to just peruse the RFP and say, “This is a fit for us.” But then when you get into detail and read it, you realize that there are things involved beyond writing.   

TWFH: RFP responses are a ton of work, with lots of people involved, multiple moving parts, etc. What advice do you have for staying organized during the process?

SS: In the beginning, make sure to figure out who is involved: Get everyone’s contact information and find out what role they play in the process. I usually start with a kickoff meeting to discuss the project scope. Then, I do a draft based on my research, and we build on that. I have the client review it and give their input: Am I on target? What do I need to change? What am I missing? I work through it from there.

TWFH: Do you have a standard “plan of attack” for RFPs?

SS: To me, the easiest way to start is by reading the RFP. Figure out what they need. Then, I start formatting. A lot of times, they want the RFP in this order, and they want you to use these specific headings, and so on. That becomes my outline, and I can start plugging in info. Also, when a client provides information, I copy and paste it into the appropriate section, and then I highlight it so I know that it’s their wording and needs to be rewritten.

TWFH: Do you typically use a template or have “boilerplate” copy that you can use from one RFP to another?

SS: I don’t see the point in reinventing the wheel. If you have a successful proposal already done, it can be to your benefit to re-use copy. I don’t mean that you have to use everything, and you don’t have to use it verbatim, but it can be more efficient to have those standard boilerplates.

Using boilerplates in RFPS helps ensure that you're always getting the same message out. It's like branding: You always want your RFP to have the same messaging, especially if you use more than one writer. Tweet this

TWFH: What do you think is the most important part of an RFP? Is there a “make or break” section?

SS: That depends on the RFP. Many RFPs will tell you exactly what to focus on. For example, if they have a 100-point scoring system, they might weight the “background” section at 10 points, but they might give 50 points to your “scope of work” section. They’re telling you what’s important to them, which sections carry the most bearing. Make those larger-pointed sections your main focus. Make those sections sparkle.

TWFH:  Are there any RFPs you have won that you know for sure what about your response made the difference between winning or losing?

SS: In so many cases, it’s the whole proposal overall. Although I did once receive feedback that that my client’s proposal was one of the best because it didn’t have a lot of extra fluff. We looked at the questions, and we answered the questions. All it takes is being concise, clear and filled with a bunch of unnecessary stuff.

TWFH: In your opinion, what do successful RFPs have in common?

SS: They fit within what it is the RFP is trying to accomplish. They follow directions. They look as professional as possible. They pay attention to the little stuff that can be overlooked: Having documents that are clear and scanned nicely. Having original signatures, if you can. If you’re going to take the time and money to do an RFP, you obviously want to put your best foot forward as much as possible.

The Great Oxford Comma Debate

It is one of the greatest debates in the English-speaking world… To Oxford comma, or not to Oxford comma.

While it is technically a grammatical option in American English, there are many people who feel very passionate about the Oxford (or serial) comma. In fact, this silly little comma has been the topic of debate among The Writers For Hire staff for many years.

Now, if you are reading this and wondering, “what is the big deal?!?” you may find this article from Business Insider to be helpful. The article explains what the Oxford comma is and gives three great examples that illustrate why the Oxford comma is important.

The article may not solve this great comma debate, but it is definitely entertaining!