15 Tips to Make Your Writing Sing – American Idol Style

There’s a part of you that wants to be a star. Go ahead. You can admit it. Though we writers often toil in near (or complete) obscurity, we still crave a little limelight. There’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t make you a lesser writer if you harbor a secret desire to see your work shining up there like a Hollywood star.

And it doesn’t make me a lesser writer that I’m a not-quite-closeted fan of American Idol. The show may fall squarely into the guilty pleasure category, but it also has merit as a resource for people hoping to make a living in the creative arts. Strip away the gaudy opening sequence, overly dramatic results lighting, and cheesy group numbers, and you’re left with a powerfully condensed series of lessons on how to become a marketable artist. Whether your craft is music or words, the same rules apply.

On Craft
Feel the words
Idol judges always ask competitors to “connect with the lyrics.” The same applies to your writing. If you’re not emotionally connected to the story, readers can tell. The execution may appear flawless, but your work will be missing that “spark” of a “certain something” that brings it to life. Let the story get inside you. Make sure it comes from your heart as much as your mind.

Avoid being pitchy
“Pitchy” is a word Idol competitors hate to hear. Pitchy writing is sloppy writing. Have heart, but make sure you hone your skills so that you can deliver the story flawlessly. Word choice, grammar, showing instead of telling, understanding story structure and character development – you must master each of these in order to create a pitch-perfect work.

Take criticism like a pro
But sometimes, even your best efforts will fall short. If you’re lucky, there will be someone standing by who can offer you some constructive criticism. Take it with a grateful heart. It may sting a little at first, but watch that playback and you’ll probably see that your critic has a point. Don’t dwell. Don’t beat yourself up. Arm yourself with your new knowledge and go back out there to kick some butt.

Study the masters and find mentors
No writer needs to travel her road alone. There are hundreds if not thousands of artists who have come this way before. Learn from them – from their work, their lives, their mistakes. Read the good stuff and let it seep into your writing DNA. If you can, find yourself a mentor. Sit at her side and pay attention. Be inspired. Be humble. Be observant.

Make it your own
In the end, the mark of a true artist is the ability to take something that’s been done a million times and make it fresh, new, exciting – to give it that certain something that is the artist’s mark. Idol competitors always win high judges marks when they put their own “flavor” on an old standard. Writers can do the same thing. Let your freak flag fly. There’s only one you, and readers want you. Don’t try to be someone else – study, but don’t mimic. Take what you learn and mix it up with your own style to create something wholly new and fabulous.

On Strategy
Play to your strengths, but …
“Song choice” can make or break an Idol performance. Under pressure on the big stage, many competitors fall into the trap of trying to deliver what they think the audience wants, instead of what they can knock out of the park. Know where your writing “home” is and make everything you do come from that place, that strong foundation that is what you know and love. Be true to your roots.

… Break out of your comfort zone
But, every once in a while try something new. No one likes a one-trick pony. It’s predictable and dull. Trying new things is the only way to grow. If you always write novels, try a short story.  If you’re a short story fiend, give poetry a whirl. Experiment with a different POV, genre, or audience. Play around with remixes – you may just find a new path to your own brilliance.

Befriend the competition
Your competition can be your best ally. Sure, you may be fighting for the attention of the same agent, publisher, or audience, but you’re also both warriors on the same side of the creative battle. Only a writer can truly “get” another writer. Your relationships with fellow writers can be invaluable. They provide emotional and creative support, lead to collaborations and referrals, and typically turn out to be the key to your success. Don’t  overlook them.

On Showmanship
Presentation Counts
I know, I know – you’re a writer, not a pop star. That’s all good, but in today’s market everyone’s an idol. People want more than just your words – they want you. And if you’re going to make the right impression (whatever “right” is for you), presentation counts: the clothes, the hair, your mannerisms, speaking voice – the “whole package,” as the Idol judges like to say. Whatever you’ve got, work it.

Connect with the Audience
Each Idol season, unbelievably talented singers fall by the wayside. The crowd gasps at the injustice of someone with so much skill being voted off, and then promptly forgets the competitor’s name. The artists who win Idol are the ones who connect with the audience – while performing and as a person. Your writing needs to reach deep inside the reader and touch the threads of humanity that run through each and every one of us. It needs to say things that are in the reader’s heart as well as in your own heart. You need to make that direct eye contact, write your words for an audience of one, find a way to say the words every reader wants to hear, “I understand.”

None of the advice here works unless you believe. You have to believe in yourself, in your talent, in your story. You have to believe in your characters and in the importance of their actions. You have to believe that someone out there is just waiting to read your work. You have to believe that you are worthy, that you deserve to be heard, that you can do this thing.

Leave it all on the stage
When you believe, you will be fearless. You will be able to take your ideas to new heights, say things you never thought you would, pull away the veil and show the world the truth of you. You will not be afraid to bare it all, to “stomp it out” as Jennifer Lopez likes to say. You will be able to let fly with all your emotions, get to the core of what you’re trying to say, and really have an impact on your readers.

Thank the fans
A writer is someone who writes. A marketable writer is someone who needs to thank her fans. Your fans are the lifeblood of your career. If there are people out there you like you and who want to read your work, you can pretty much write your own ticket. It’s these people – your readers – who give you the power of choice. That’s a big deal. Thank them once in a while – from the heart.

On Philosophy
Live Life
Writing is a solitary pursuit. Life should not be. Study and sharpen your craft, but don’t do so at the expense of living your life. A writer’s work is her life distilled. If she hasn’t lived, she cannot write anything worth reading. The Idol competitors are plunged into a life-changing experience that feeds their creativity and passion. You may not need such an extreme adventure, but give yourself the chance to have small adventures each day. Get out in the world. Drink it in. Talk to people. Look closely. Listen. Grab chunks of the world and put them away for a rainy day. Create a life that feeds your soul and your muse.

Know that your craft is a journey, not a destination
Each time an Idol competitor is voted out of the running, the judges say the same thing, “This isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning.” It’s never the end. An artist is an artist forever. There is no Holy Grail to be won. There is no end-all be-all goal that will mark your ultimate achievement and the end of your efforts. An artist is always learning, always growing, always creating. The road may change, but never stop enjoying the journey.

Those are my 15 tips to make your writing sing, American Idol style. I’d love to know your favorite tips for producing writing that goes straight to the audience’s heart and the top of the charts.

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who, among other things, works as a marketing strategist and copywriter. She helps creative entrepreneurs (artists, writers, idea people, and creative consultants) discover their “natural” marketing groove so they can build their business with passion, story, and connection. She also blogs. A lot. She is a mom, a singer, and a dreamer who believes in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Look her up on facebook or follow her on twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: Brittney Bush Bollay

8 thoughts on “15 Tips to Make Your Writing Sing – American Idol Style

  1. Jamie,

    Wow, what a POWERFUL & beautifully written post. There is so much valuable information here that I do not know where to begin. I particularly enjoyed #1 (feel the words) You can NEVER transmit that which you do not feel, you can fake it for a little bit, but most people will catch on quickly or simply ignore your work for lack of an authentic feel.

    #5 Make it your own – I love your approach of having a mentor but not be a “wannabe” of your mentor 🙂 Unless you inject your own life force, the work will absolutely seem like a copy of someone else’s.

    #14 Live Life This to me is the most important one of all. soo many people write about stuff that is incongruent with their lifestyle or worse, that is in essence removed from life because they themselves are removed from life and buried in work.

    & #15 A journey vs destination – Ultimately Your gift is this present moment and if you are chasing “it” (a book deal, an award, a best seller’s list) you will miss out on the whole point of life.

    I don’t have to tell you how much I appreciate your work, your purposeful and encouraging energy and your true gift for writing.

    Sending you a big hug and tons of light Jamie,


    • Bernardo,
      Thanks so much for your kind words and for taking the time to put them down. Love your supporting insights and I think your post today on yourgreatlifetv.com complements this very well – talking about stopping to appreciate and be grateful for the world around us. As writers, we need to be constantly immersed in our environment and our emotions. If you’re taking things for granted, that’s impossible. Only when you take the time to truly see and hear and feel everything around you, to appreciate it for it’s own sake – only then can you write about it from the heart.

      Thanks again for your time and thoughts.

  2. Pingback: repost: 15 tips to make your writing sing. « Danger is a Fantasy…

  3. Jamie,
    Great post!!
    I am so glad I found it, as it applies to me currently.
    I have been writing since I was in junior high school.
    I have just completed my first children’s picture book; I am going to be querying agents in the coming weeks.
    Everything you mentioned in this post is true and such great advice.
    During this journey of mine, what I personally had trouble understanding was the difference between “Telling and Showing”
    As an author you have to guide the reader through the story and really make them “feel” it.
    Thanks for writing this post I really enjoyed it

    • Jim – Congrats on completing your first manuscript. That’s so exciting! I have a special place in my heart for picture books and hope one day to write one myself – they are, I think, the doorway to the magical world of literature … and SO important for instilling a love of story and writing in children.

      Glad you enjoyed the post.
      Here’s to making readers feel your story!

  4. Thanks Jamie,
    I am pretty excited about it; I have gotten some good feedback on it from the inner circle of friends I trust to be truthful on if it is good or not.
    Now the challenge of getting an agent to read it and wanting to rep it for me.
    Whether I get a form rejection or a please send the manuscript, I look forward to the experience.

  5. Pingback: Weekend Edition – Be Your Own (Writing) Idol Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips | Live to Write - Write to Live

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