Journal

Journal

book inc  –  journal  –  Writing About Writing

Writing About Writing

book inc director J. Greg Phelan shares his latest preoccupation: how to encourage writers to write essays about writing for the book inc Journal. In doing so, he gives us tips and prompts.

By J. Greg Phelan

February 22, 2024

Since we started the Journal, book inc has published 126 essays exploring our writing practice, what spurs us on and what gets in our way.  By sharing our experience, our goal is to help writers inside and outside our community. This is my fifteenth piece. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to write a semi-regular column, to give me an opportunity to reflect on my writing life.

Over the years, I’ve found writing short pieces has improved my craft. Way back in the 90s, I wrote a weekly technology column for three New Jersey papers for almost four years. Generating a 600-word column on deadline, I learned how to create an opening to capture a reader’s attention, get to the point quickly, build a story (with some conflict mixed in), and wrap up with a nice takeaway. Most of all, I improved at the most essential skill of any writer: making every word count.

I also learned my most personal columns made the strongest connection with readers. It makes sense, of course. We all enjoy reading about the top five ways to get inspired or overcome procrastination, but it’s even more satisfying and pleasurable to read an essay that reveals details about the writer’s life. I often wrote about my father in my column, and my readers loved that. I wasn’t just sharing useful information but also inviting my readers to get to know me and my family a little bit better. 

It takes some effort to push myself to be personal, though, even after all these years. In early drafts of my Journal essays, I tend to jump on my soapbox, telling you what I learned and what you should do. But as I revise, I realize that approach isn’t the best way to connect. That’s when I shift from being prescriptive to personal. From you to I. These are my challenges I’m struggling to overcome. These are my realizations that have helped me. The more personal, the more universal. That’s what fosters connection.

It takes skill, confidence, effort, and practice to write about your writing effectively, but it doesn’t have to be that complicated. We all have our writing preoccupations. That’s a great place to start.

Here’s my current preoccupation: how to encourage writers in our book-writing community to write Journal essays. Liz Jannuzzi, our managing editor, and I have been discussing this challenge in our weekly meetings. Some writers seem reluctant to take the plunge. Time is always a factor, for sure. But others may never have written short pieces before. How can we help writers in our community have the confidence to get started? 

When Liz and I started discussing this challenge, my first reaction was: But writing short pieces is easy and fun, especially compared to writing memoirs or novels! Just take something you’ve been thinking a lot about and explore it to see where it takes you. Write about something that will help me get to know you. Something only you can write. With a takeaway that other people might find interesting. That’s it!

While dwelling on how to convey that to our book-writing community, I thought, why not write a Journal essay about that? And here we are. 

The starting point is to take an idea and chew upon it. Once I do a few drafts over a few days, giving it time to percolate, then I share it with my editor to get fresh eyes on the writing and help me bring the essay to fruition.

That’s another perk of our awesome community. The opportunity to work with an enthusiastic and skilled editor to help make my essay as good as it can be. I can always depend on Liz to help me see my work in a new way, unlocking potential I didn’t realize was there, and what’s better than that?

Update! Liz copyedited this Journal, fixing grammar and punctuation, simplifying sentences, too. She also shared this comment:

This is great! And I love the shout-out. But I’m craving easy tips to get me started. Maybe some prompts at the end?

So, thanks to Liz’s suggestion, here are a few prompts to chew upon to get writing about your writing juices flowing:

  • What’s one of your biggest writing challenges right now?
  • What are you currently obsessed about with your writing, either good or bad?
  • Have you hit a major stumbling block recently? A major breakthrough?
  • Describe a life experience, either recent or in the past, that has affected your writing. Perhaps even been a metaphor for your process. 

We’re looking forward to reading your writing about writing essays.

If you’re a book inc writer with an idea for a Journal, please pitch it to us at bookinc@projectwritenow.org.

J. Greg Phelan

J. Greg Phelan has written for The New York Times, America, and other publications. He is the co-founder and board chair of Project Write Now, a nonprofit writing center providing classes and outreach for writers of all ages. In 2020, he launched book inc, a community for memoir and novel writers.

J. Greg Phelan has written for The New York Times, America, and other publications. He is the co-founder and board chair of Project Write Now, a nonprofit writing center providing classes and outreach for writers of all ages. In 2020, he launched book inc, a community for memoir and novel writers.