Anne Janzer is the author of multiple award-winning books on writing, including “ˆThe Writer’s Process and “Writing to Be Understood.” She is fascinated by human behavior and cognitive science, and uses that lens to figure out how we can communicate more effectively through writing. As a nonfiction writing coach and developmental editor, she works with authors to get their best work into the world.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
My single most important writing lesson has been learning to trust my process. It’s taken many years (and writing a book on the subject) to truly internalize this lesson.
My personal writing process evolved over years of freelance writing. Because I worked on a project basis, paid for results instead of time, optimizing the process made financial sense. I identified the steps that led to my most productive and successful projects. These included:
- Diving into research as early as possible in a project
- Using freewriting to explore what I already know and don’t yet understand
- Practicing intentional incubation to get new insights
- Giving myself permission to write an imperfect first draft
- Committing time and energy to revision
These steps deliver the best results, most consistently, in the shortest time.
But it’s taken me years to learn to trust that process. It’s always tempting to think that this time is different, that I can go faster by skipping a step. I nearly always regret it when I do.
Only after writing a book about the inner game of writing (“The Writer’s Process”) did I commit myself entirely to it. Even so, I sometimes find myself tempted to try a shortcut. But now I resist.
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
When I was younger and dreaming of being a writer, I never envisioned my current path. I imagined myself working with publishers, publishing in magazines, going to bookstores, and being an “author.”
Instead, I’m an indie author, which means I am also a boutique publisher, a project manager, a book marketer, and more.
So, that’s been a surprise. The bigger surprise is how much fun I’m having! I love the challenge of operating in an industry that is in flux, looking for creative ways to reach readers, and helping other authors do the same. A couple of smaller presses have approached me about doing books, and I realized that I don’t want to give up the control. I’m having too much fun.
If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?
Writing, for me, is like baking bread, so I suppose I am a baker.
I follow a general recipe, but don’t have complete control over the results. Unseen processes contribute to the final result, like the yeast in a healthy sourdough starter.
My job is to gather the ingredients, work them into shape, and then set up the right environment. For example, while bread dough is rising, we keep it away from the cold to protect the delicate yeast. Similarly, when a first draft is coming into being, we need to keep it safe from the cold judgment of the inner critic. At some point it will be ready for hard critical work, like dough being pounded and reshaped. And we must know when to put it in the oven of revision, and when to pull it out.
The better you get at managing these steps, the greater your success rate. Yet it still, sometimes, feels a bit like magic.
And it’s messy. (I’m not a neat baker.)
What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Late in my senior year of college, after four years as an English literature major, I enrolled in a journalism class. I had some time in my schedule and figured that it would be fun and easy. After all, I was good at cranking out term papers and literary analysis, so how hard could it be?
[Cue maniacal laughter.]
The teacher (whose name I have tragically misplaced) kept bouncing my drafts back to me for another pass. He challenged me to pare everything down, to cut to the essentials. Without remembering the exact words, this is what he taught me:
The reader may not get past the first paragraph. Tell them what they need to know—clearly and quickly.
For someone steeped in academic writing with its captive audience, the idea that someone wouldn’t even bother to read my words was a shock. It felt like someone pulled the rug out from under my writing desk, scattering pens and papers everywhere. It changed everything.
The reader didn’t owe me their attention! I had to earn it, to make their effort worthwhile.
Even though I didn’t go into journalism, that insight has stuck with me, growing more relevant with every passing year. It applies to nearly every kind of writing I’ve done: business writing, technical writing, marketing copy, and nonfiction books.
This piece of advice eventually matured into my philosophy of servant authorship. It’s inspired by the servant leadership concept, in which a leader serves the team and the community. As authors, shouldn’t we adopt the same goal of serving our readers?
Whether I’m working with my own projects or other writers, I begin with two simple questions: who am I serving with this work, and what do I hope it does for them? This philosophy streamlines and simplifies everything, from deciding what to write and how to approach it to navigating publishing and promotion. Better yet, it de-stresses the writing process by keeping my focus squarely on the reader rather than on myself and my writing ability. It’s not about me at all. It’s about the reader.