In my previous post, I covered how to nail introductory paragraphs, particularly for articles. Today, let’s cover how to wrap it all up with a fantastic conclusion.
The SAC format
Most conclusions can follow the Summary, Action, and Clincher (SAC) format. It works well for essays, articles, and blogs, for instance.
The summary reviews your key assertion or thesis and ties all your main points together.
The action encourages your reader to do something based on the thesis/article points. It can be a mental action (e.g., “Consider…”), but task-oriented statements (e.g., “Clean up your computer files”) arguably are more powerful. It really just depends on the nature of the thesis.
The clincher is an attention-getter or final thought that makes it clear to the reader that you’re all done.
Here’s a quick example:
All great articles need a powerful conclusion. The best way to do that is to use SAC formatting, which includes a summary, action, and clincher. (summary) Prepare your thesis and body carefully when you write so that pulling your thesis and main points together with this template is easy. (action) After all, the more organized your writing is, the more enjoyable it likely will be for your reader, and that’s the ultimate author’s goal. (clincher)
Instead of rehashing, SAC ties it all together and directs people forward with a clear why
The main consideration when you use SAC is that you don’t want to sound like you’re just repeating yourself. Don’t just pull your thesis and main point sentences down to the bottom, and don’t add more details, because by the time you reach your conclusion, you already should have laid those out in the body.
Instead, find a way to rephrase those concepts in an interesting way that pulls everything together. The reader should get the sense, based on how you do this, that you’re wrapping up and are about to give them that clincher.
So think about that final sentence. Ask yourself what impression you want the reader to take away and how you can lead into that. The more you can think about a broad perspective or big picture, the simpler this job will be.
If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, then you already know that I’m a huge advocate of not forcing writing if you’re just not feeling it. Forced writing shows its seams and almost always loses its luster.
But let’s assume that you’re having a great day. The words are flowing faster than your coffee. In this case, it often can be worth it to challenge yourself in terms of pace/deadline. The challenge doesn’t have to be outrageous–a mild shift is totally fine. If you normally take three hours to write a chapter, for instance, just aim for 2 hours and 50 minutes. Or if you normally do 500 words an hour, aim for 525. But you can test yourself harder, too, such as doing 3 articles instead of 2. You just have to be realistic, because if the challenge is truly impossible, then you’ll only end up missing the mark and feeling defeated.
So why do this?
The point with this strategy isn’t to add stress. Remember, it’s something to use when the writing is working for you. The point is to encourage yourself to trim away the fat. When the deadline is shorter or the pace is a little faster, you have to trust your gut. You can’t get caught in the weeds when looking for sources. You have to make good decisions on the fly about what’s relevant or necessary. You start to grasp that you don’t need everything. It’s training your judgment.
I’ve found that, when you do all of these things, something miraculous happens. Your true voice starts talking. Even though you might be conscious of all your technique or audience or any number of things, your self-censorship deflates, because you just don’t have time to worry so much. You have to just do. It’s all about just finishing. And over time, you’ll start to feel more comfortable not waiting for yourself. It’s a major confidence booster.
None of this means that the draft you produce is going to be perfect. You still have to go back and polish. But if you combine this strategy with others, such as using a template, then you can produce solid content fast and reliably and increase the odds that the end result is closer to who you actually are. And in my view, the value for this can’t fit on a price tag.
Every fiction book has a title. That’s a given. But chapters? That’s messier.
The case against chapter titles…
Most fiction books I’ve read don’t use chapter titles. They use numbers. More specifically, writers generally put those numbers on the page as digits (e.g., 29), rather than writing out the words (e.g., twenty-nine). But every writer is a little individual about it.
Some readers like that chapter titles can give a sneak peek at what’s ahead in the next section of the book. But personally, I find that chapter titles usually give away too much, which ruins my anticipation. If an author only uses the chapter number, then I have clear start-stop points in the book, but the author hasn’t given anything away, and I still have a better sense of mystery and excitement.
From a technical perspective, chapters are meant only to break your book into smaller sections. And it can become hard to know where to draw the line with section labels. Paragraphs or pages, for example, are small sections, too, but you don’t title those. You just assume the reader will flow from one to the next and use the line break / indenting to understand your organization. So in this sense, I see chapter numbers as much simpler and less invasive.
…and the case in favor
But chapter titles have their benefits. They force you, as a writer, to have a clear sense of what the content in that section does or is about. If you outline before you write, then you can stay better focused so you don’t get into the weeds too much. You know exactly what purpose the text has for the reader. And if you place titles after drafting, then it still can help you see what to put in or cut. There’s also a fantastic creative challenge that can improve your writing overall. Instead of one title to come up with, you could have dozens. Many readers appreciate all this extra flavor and effort.
Chapter titles also can create a sense of unity through a book. Some readers need to see or how the chapters are related, because those associations help them make better sense of the book as a whole. And if you use a chapter title that includes something the reader is familiar with or that provides a good curiosity gap, then you can create some empathy to connect better and create intrigue without giving too much away. It’s possible to set the mood right away so that your reader more easily can settle in, imagine the world or scene, and feel invested.
In the end, the reader is most important
Ultimately, chapter titles are always forward-oriented. So if you’re going to use them, they need to give clear clues about the journey the reader is going to take, and they need to do it in a way that’s not distracting. If you don’t want to use them, though, then you don’t have to. There are all kinds of other writing strategies and techniques you can use to create anticipation (e.g., a classic cliffhanger chapter ending), help one section flow to the next, or offer clues. But in either case, think about your reader, both in terms of what they expect–some genres use chapter titles more often than others, for example–and what they personally are going to need. Create a truly immersive experience, and make conscious decisions at every step about how to present your story in a positive way that they’ll respond to.
Catching your readers off guard once in a while isn’t a bad thing. It can make your story seem more novel (pun intended) so that people are motivated to go all the way to the last page. But then I stumbled across this Tweet:
The tweet got me thinking about how writers are approaching fiction writing in general. Like Chris, I’ve been getting the impression that there’s a lot of emphasis on the “traits” or technical elements that go into a draft, like making characters more compelling. But you can have all of those elements and still have a book be less than incredible if your actual writing is subpar.
But what makes it stand out?
For me, great writing is poetic, not in the sense of being flowery or verbose, but in the sense of having incredibly beautiful imagery, rhythm and metaphor that stirs deep feelings of empathy. You absolutely can have your own style here. But readers get the sense from your connotations and phrasing and analogies, from hints and implications between the lines, that the character has some real experience with life. It’s truthful and relatable in an incredibly deep way.
From my perspective, much of modern writing lacks this poetry. It is incredibly sharp and blunt, designed to drop the jaw and not waste time. Perhaps that is because there has been so much of an emphasis on pacing and driving the plot. Perhaps that makes us afraid of what will happen if readers are allowed a moment to think beyond the pages into the psychological or other realities those pages contain. Or perhaps it is the reader who is already so overwhelmed that all they want is an “easy” beach read, to be entertained instead of forced to keep thinking and feeling. Or perhaps we are all so conditioned to the dramatic, to explosions and fire defining “action”, to technology forcing us to want immediate gratification and response, that we think bluntness is the only way to communicate.
This bluntness can be problematic in any genre, but I think it’s especially visible in horror/thriller. The stories aren’t just more gruesome. They also quickly throw out events that are so unexpected that I cannot help but feel like seams are showing, like it was clearly the writer’s intent to shock. And because I see the intent, I am not shocked. I’m disappointed and distracted from the story.
The solution isn’t easy. It’s to focus on yourself. It’s to be so comfortable with who you are that you don’t censure, that you no longer worry about what anyone else is going to think as you pull from everything you know and have been through. You must listen to your own instinct and capture it in a way that makes purpose clear. You can do this listening even if you choose to change scenes or character traits, and it’s not about what you say, but how. Do it well, and your voice will never be lost, no matter how many revisions you go through.
Pop quiz: Is improvising or outlining better when writing?
Initially, I fell into the winging it camp. That approach allowed me to write freely with very little constraint whenever I had the opportunity. I’m still very much a proponent of writing anywhere, anytime. And philosophically, there’s something incredibly beautiful in allowing the story to have that kind of control. I like the idea that the story can become what it should be, rather than what I initially wanted.
But I’ve also come to see the practicality of outlining. With a clear roadmap, it can be very easy to flesh out scenes or sections of content. The writing can happen incredibly fast as a result. So outlining is a logistical positive.
So right now, I’m falling somewhere in the middle. For my current work in progress, for instance, I outlined the plot, chapter by chapter. But the meat of the scenes, all the descriptions and dialogue, I left to spontaneity. I knew where I needed to go, but I allowed myself the freedom to take any path in that direction. And that felt perfect.
I also still believe that you don’t have to work chronologically, even if you have an outline. In fact, some of the best authors assert that it’s almost impossible to introduce a book you haven’t written yet. They recommend leaving the intro chapters for last or planning to rewrite them, so that they make more sense after the rest of the book is in place.
I’m pretty sure that this evolution has happened for me largely because I’m simply getting older with more responsibilities and goals in my lap. Those changes have meant I need to put some safeguards in place to get things to happen. But I’ve also done a ton of writing oriented to business. That’s helped me to view my career as a writer with much more of a CEO mindset. And if you consider a novel, article or anything else you are writing as an assigned project, then it’s pretty hard to imagine any boss allowing you to have zero structure for the work. A good leader is going to step back and not micromanage it, but they’re still going to want to know what your game plan is. So in that sense, as your own boss, it makes a lot of sense to give yourself a basic framework that offers both flexibility and accountability for the goal you have.
So although you absolutely can adjust the balance to fit your circumstances and preferences, my advice is to outline and improvise, rather than to go completely in one direction or the other. You’ll have a greater guarantee of getting a decent amount of pages out consistently without losing the creative spark that comes from reduced constraint.
For a while now, I’ve been indulging in standup comedy online during my teeny bits of free time. (Netflix specials are fun, as are the late night shows.) If you’re a writer who doesn’t do the same, I highly encourage you to start.
First, good standup inevitably gets you in a better mood. And I’m convinced that you do your best writing when you are relaxed and happy. Even if you choose to write on a darker theme, there’s a clarity and ease that comes from approaching the theme without stress and worry.
But beyond helping you let go of your troubles for a while, standup comedians are also some of the best storytellers in the world. They have perfected the art of making tales engaging yet brief, and they understand the art of delivering their communication in ways that are easy to understand.
What really makes their efforts work, in my opinion, is that standup comedians are so beautifully aware of social constructs and expectations. They find dozens of instances in everyday life when people have challenged those constructs or gotten into sticky situations with them. Then they use the audience’s understanding of those violations or expectations to connect and get laughs. Through this process, they also relate the stories in a honest, often almost crude way. Their analogies or metaphors have a sense of poetry and rhythm, but they also can be so out of the box that those in the audience are happy that what the comedian is saying is novel. Those who listen appreciate that the comedian takes the risk of putting what is or could be considered taboo all out front in the open.
So it’s not that standup comedians are funny. It’s that they understand more deeply why something is funny. And if you start dissecting that a little bit as a writer, you start to see how people really work within the immediate culture. All of the biases and ways individuals and groups interact and influence each other are laid bare. And once that happens, it’s much easier not only to imagine viable situational plots, but also to establish characterizations based on expected behaviors and how characters adhere to or violate those norms. And on some level, you also gain a sense of how to balance kernels of truth against what others might see as offensive.
So next time you find yourself bashing your head against writer’s block, step back for a moment. Pop some popcorn. Go find a comedy show that appeals to your sense of humor. Take some relief in watching a great storyteller on their feet. Think about all the buttons they are hitting and understand that those strikes are part of an intentional, carefully scripted strategy, rather than the result of a spontaneous bit of luck and personality. And from there, it’s just a matter of choosing which buttons to line up for a story all your own.
I’ve been writing professionally now for more than 16 years. So trust me when I say you do need to hear some constructive criticism if you want to improve and be successful in this craft.
The key word, though, is constructive. If you want people to take you seriously, then you need to set them straight when specific hurtful things come out of their mouths. And if you want to support authors, journalists, etc., then you need to know what to refrain from saying and why those things are so offensive.
1. “Yeah, but what’s your real job?”
This comment is the #1 thing to never say to a writer for a reason. It implies a host of nastiness, including that writing cannot bring in a living wage, that writing requires less work than other types of jobs simply because it’s creative and thus shouldn’t be treated seriously, and that there’s no place for writers among “real” professionals.
The reality is, many people don’t make tons of money writing. And that’s because, quite frankly, either they aren’t good enough to or just don’t have the business savvy or situational support to approach the job in a lucrative way. Even if they don’t make 6+ digits a year, as many people in other positions (e.g., teacher, cashier, home health aide) can testify, that doesn’t mean they aren’t putting in full time hours trying to make it all work, or that they’re not spending real time agonizing over how to improve and connect with the right people. Income by itself doesn’t mean people aren’t working.
But today’s writing situation also isn’t what Grandma had. We can tap affiliate marketing on blogs and websites. We can use third party sites to find and connect with clients all over the world. Businesses need excellent copywriters for technical documents, marketing, social media posts and much, much more.
So please. Look at my time tracked, hours billed and paychecks cashed. Then you can tell me I don’t have a real job. And while you’re at it, you can take note of every news article you read, every business letter you hold, every Kindle book you read, and for that matter, every scripted movie you watch as you down Cheetos on your couch. Because none of those writers have real jobs either, apparently, right?
2. Self-publishing isn’t real publishing/you’re not a writer if you self-publish.
In 2016, self-publishing represented 300 million units and $1.25 billion in sales out of the entire $6 billion U.S. publishing industry.
Digital self-publishing accounted for more than 30 percent of American sales in 2014, just 5 years after mainstream digital publishing became widely accessible.
A typical traditionally published, unagented writer earns just 7.5 percent of their book’s cover price. Self-published authors earn between 70 and 96 percent, depending on whether they sell on their own websites or use platforms like Apple Books and Amazon.
Experts expect the global book printing market to be worth about $49 billion by 2024, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 1% during 2018-2024, Self-publishing is the fastest-growing segment within this market–its CAGR stands at roughly 17%.
So not only do self-published authors represent a big chunk of the overall industry, they also earn more than traditional authors and are a driving force behind the growth for the entire publishing world. These figures demonstrate that the idea that writers must go through a traditional publisher to be successful is woefully outdated. Although not everyone who puts out a self-published title will get good sales, serious writers no longer have to depend on traditional publishing houses to connect with readers. This is fantastic news, as overwhelmed, traditional publishing houses have been incredibly exclusive, preventing many great writers from getting into the market and allowing previous sale trends to determine which writers to work with.
3. You’re only a writer if you’re selling books.
See point 1 above. But that aside, many revered authors sold just a handful of their manuscripts, if any at all. Many were discovered or became famous only after they died. Among them include Emily Dickinson, John Kennedy Toole and William Faulkner. Other authors, like Anna Sewell, wrote just one book. Still others, such as Franz Kafka, kept their writing private as they made a living from other jobs.
And the heart of the thing is this: Most writers, like Herman Melville, admittedly do want some fame and financial security. That’s the dream. But ultimately, we write not to sell, but because the story demands that we put pen to paper (or these days, fingertips to keyboard). This is what makes one a genuine writer–an insatiable drive simply to deliver the tale, to bring readers to another world while at the same time somehow connecting with them and conveying a part of who we are. We feel at home in that task and obligated to it. To deny that someone has that sense of accountability to the job, solely because they cannot quantify it according to a biased norm, is ridiculous.
Writers deal with quite a bit. We learn how to say “Meh” to rejection letters, write with kids demanding snacks or screen codes or cuddles, and spend countless hours debating single sentences. Goodness knows we have our share of Internet trolls and broken editorial links/emails, too.
So non-writers, cut us some slack. Think before you talk. And writers, be proud. You have a right to stand up for yourself. Burn the arguments above into your memory and regurgitate them. Tell people how it is. Because none of us deserve to be told, either implicitly or explicitly, that we are less than anyone else.
If you want to get better at writing, just sign up for a writing workshop, right?
In an article for The Practical Writer, Dan Barden argued that writing workshops don’t work. And the problem is twofold–we take a democratic approach and assume everyone has something to offer, and we maintain the idea that readers have some sort of obligation to us (they don’t).
According to Barden, serious writers essentially need a trial by fire. They need to be put through the wringer, to feel a little pain about their craft. Without that pain, the struggle, people never are really sure that they want to be artists enough. They don’t find their real voice or understand who they are. And instead of being about improving the writing, a workshop should focus on transforming the writer’s relationship to it.
This doesn’t mean that a good workshop can’t help you with the more technical aspects of the craft, or that it can’t prepare you for how to deal with different aspects of publishing. It certainly can. But Barden’s point was that those elements are far less important than grasping why a reader would want to pick up your manuscript. And it’s here that workshops so often drop the ball.
Like Barden, I think writers focus too much on the fact they just love to write. It’s OK to talk about it as if it’s a compulsion, a lust you have to stroke. I’ve done it myself, because that’s honestly, truthfully how I feel about it. But it is nothing if you don’t also recognize that readers don’t really care about your feelings. They care about having a story they can’t get out of their head. It’s not about whether you deserve their attention. It’s about whether what’s on the page does.
So if you really want to be a good writer, sure, work on those commas, figure out how to write query letters, all that. But first ask yourself if the story you want to tell genuinely has something worthwhile to it. There always should be a clear message. And ideally, that message should be something entirely new, something so enormous and penetrating that we’re not the same after we’ve heard it. Some concepts deserve the trash can, and the sooner you focus only on the ones that don’t, the sooner you’ll have the audience that naturally follows you.
As the world grows more commercial, there’s an increasing tendency to label only certain of writing as valuable. People encourage others to write books nearly as a right of passage, for example, and professionals apparently aren’t professional at all unless they publish papers or articles. News headlines still capture our attention, and no one wants to be without a collection of life hacks, self-help or how-to pieces.
Yet, if you’re not writing the following important things, you’re missing out.
1. A journal
Memoirs and journals are not the same thing. A memoir is your story told with a particular angle or spin you want. You get to pick and choose which parts to include and which to toss in the trash, and you write it in hindsight. But a journal is bigger and more raw. You write in the moment without caring how things tie together and give your honest thoughts or perception of events. And so it is much better at revealing who you are. It often can help you sort out what you’re feeling and aid in decision making, and you can look back on it not only as a memory aid, but as evidence of your growth or change. Many people swear by journaling as a way to organize themselves and control stress, too.
Although lots of writers have focused on writing thank you notes, traditional letters are equally important. They take longer to write than digital options like email, and that’s kind of the point. Since you can’t just autocorrect or bulk delete, they show the recipient that you’re willing to slow down, to really think about what you’re putting on the paper. Everyone likes to feel remembered, and a simple letter, sent even when someone hasn’t done anything for you, conveys the message you haven’t forgotten them. Unlike digital messages, traditional letters also are something people can keep to remember a relationship even in the most remote situations. They don’t require any account keeping and physically can last for decades or even centuries.
3. Family stories
What happened when Grandpa flew with the Allies into Germany in WWII? Why did Aunt Elaine always plant morning glories? Did Dad really hide the neighbor’s combine in the grove for a laugh? You never know unless you ask, and being able to share those stories helps those you love feel more significant. Writing it all down can help you appreciate who they are as people and how they connect to you, and it leaves a legacy. Plus, their stories can help you make sense of different times, circumstances and your own current difficulties.
Can you buy a cookbook in about two seconds? Sure. It might not even cost you more than $1 if you go used or digital. But meals the way your family did them, that little dash of this or that or a personal technique from your grandma–those are what make dishes taste like home and be so insanely comforting. They can’t be bought, and as with family stories, once people are gone, they can’t ever share those tastes with you again. So whether it’s jam, cinnamon bread, goat cheese frittatas or a good old-fashioned jambalaya, write it out and pass it down.
5. A goal breakdown/schedule
People fail to achieve goals for all kinds of reasons, including a lack of good support. But much of the time, failure happens simply because people set a target without identifying the specific path they need to walk to get there. Even if they know the broad steps necessary, they do not break those steps down into scheduled task items (e.g., find an agent = send out 4 queries every Saturday between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m.). Writing a goal breakdown will help you see just how easy or complex an objective is, let you gather and use resources well and get a better sense of progress so you can stay motivated.
6. A got-it-done list
You probably pay crazy attention to your to-do list. It’s there to keep you on track and productive. But a got-it-done list is meant to help you reflect on what you’ve accomplished, regardless of whether the accomplishments are what you set out to do or not. You write the list at the end of the day and use it to combat the feeling like you didn’t do enough or somehow wasted your time. It’s all about keeping your day in perspective so you can rest easy without guilt and start again fresh the next day.
All writing is important. But honing in on these half a dozen areas can help you see your life or circumstances with fresh eyes. These niches can relieve stress, strengthen relationships and ensure you take the right actions at the right time for what you want. So if all you write are cover letters or chat messages, spice it up. You might be surprised at how you feel with what comes out of your pen.