Helpful Tips from a Harvard Writer's Conference

I recently attended Publishing Books, Memoirs, and Other Creative Nonfiction, a three day course sponsored by Harvard Medical School.

The conference was chock full of helpful tips.  If I had a smartphone, I would have tweeted the conference.  But I don't, so I just wrote these tips down for posting later.

These tips are roughly divided into categories, but beyond that, there's no particular rhyme or reason to them.  I just wrote down tips that I found useful.  Note that these are paraphrases and not quotes, so any awkward wording is my fault.  Many thanks to all the speakers and course director Julie Silver for putting together such a great conference.

On Writing Nonfiction Book Proposals

The sales records of the books you list in the Competition section are used, in conjunction with other factors, to calculate your advance.
- Regina Brooks, literary agent and author of Writing Great Books for Young Adults

If you don’t have bookscan to look up sales records, check the Amazon sales rank to get an idea for how a book is selling.
-Julie Silver, M.D., author of Super Healing

An audition video of yourself talking about your book can show your publisher that you’re able to sell your book and may help increase the advance. Publishers are looking for authenticity and passion.
Alan Rinzler, editor, Jossey-Bass.  (Check out Alan's very informative blog, The Book Deal)

On Publishing Contracts

Deadlines are sometimes negotiable, but be aware that if a publisher
is seeking a reason not to publish your book, a missed deadline is their easiest out.
-Jacqueline Wehmueller, editor at Johns Hopkins University Press

On Platform is a website where you can sign up and be contacted if reporters need an expert to interview
- Julie Silver

Expertise is no longer enough for a platform. You need to be interacting with your potential audience via speaking engagements and/or other venues.
- Regina Brooks

Content is King: No longer should you think about the content of your book being used in just one form. The content of your book can be used on many platforms and you can be paid over and over again for the same material: video games, radio/tv shows, software apps, etc...
-Regina Brooks

On The Industry
The publishing industry isn’t dying anymore. In fact, they rebounded to record highs in 2009. Stock for Barnes and Noble went up 27.1% and Amazon 163.5%. For the last 12 months, ending in March, Barnes and Noble has opened more stores than they’ve closed.
–Alan Rinzler

Sometimes timing will affect whether a book gets accepted for publication. Editors have quotas and slots to fill. If they get a book at the right time, they may take a chance on it.
–Alan Rinzler

At least 5% of self published books eventually convert to commercial publishing.
–Alan Rinzler

On Writing

If pitching for a periodical, try to tie your pitch to a certain date to create a sense of urgency and relevance. For example, if you’re writing about hot air balloons, you may want to tie it into the 50th anniversary of ballooning.
- Katherine Russell Rich, author of Dreaming in Hindi

If you have a word that appears all the time in your book (for example, the word "healing" if you're writing a book about healing), try taping the thesaurus entry for that word on your computer monitor.
- Julie Silver

Every word counts, so detail is vital. Specificity in detail serves many purposes. It gives work its voice, particularizes character, shows rather than tells, adds energy, humor, and poetry to dialogue. Specific, microscopic detail gives work with its originality.
 - Kelly Easton, author of The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes

For help with dialogue, try reading plays. For help with prose, try reading poetry.
–Kelly Easton

To make your writing move, use more verbs and use good verbs. Replace nouns with verbs (look for words that end in –tion, -ment, or –ence). Also, replace adjectives. For example, “It was a hot, sultry afternoon” turns into “The afternoon blazed and sweated.”
 - Susan Aiello, WordsWorld consulting

People think they’re reading because they want to find out what happens, but actually, they’re reading because the author made them care about the characters.
- Michael Palmer, MD, author of The Last Surgeon

On Writing Memoir

Novels have migrated recently into memoir. The people who in the past might have written their stories as fiction are now being told to write their story as memoir.
-Katherine Russell Rich

When writing memoirs, you need to decide how to tell the story. Can you combine two minor characters into one character for storytelling purposes? It’s a tricky question, but in some cases, it's okay.
-Katherine Russell Rich

Establish the narrator immediately. Is he funny? Intellectual?
-Katherine Russell Rich

Try starting with an essay that serves as the launching place for larger work. -Katherine Russell Rich


  1. Thanks so much for sharing these tips and insights. Glad I saw your Tweet about the link this morning.

  2. This is awesome information! I've bookmarked this post for future reference. Thank you!! :)

  3. Awesome information :) I love the Michael Palmer quote about characters!

  4. Very helpful! Thanks! I'll be linking back to this one when I post tonight.

  5. I love visiting new blogs and already learning something new!!! This was extremely helpful, thanks so much for posting about it!

  6. This is some highly useful information and a wonderful encapsulation of this writer's conference. I may link to this piece on an upcoming blog post I will be doing.

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  7. Great tips - I particularly liked the ones about writing. The other categories were helpful too, just not as much fun!

  8. Wonderful tips especially the one about making your words move. I really need to go back over my WIP and see if I can make any improvements.

  9. Thanks for sharing these tips! I just found your blog and it looks really neat. I'll be following from now on!


  11. These are great tips. Thank you so much for sharing. On writing answered a question I was pondering. ;o)