Sure, we all have stories. Stories of highs and lows, drama and the mundane. And we’d all like to think each of us has a story to sell.
But it’s not true.
I know. I am an editor and a ghostwriter. I’ve worked on clients’ stories that needed just a bit of fine-tuning to make them shine. And I’ve come across some pretty bad ones that had no hope of selling. At least not in their current states. Clients have sent me their messy, sometimes unintelligible, awful writings. And I’ve been able to turn those into something beautiful, or at least something that doesn’t smell up the place. Turning the story you tell into the story you sell takes a bit of honesty, hard work, and creativity.
Yes, each of us has a story to tell. But it doesn’t become a story to sell until we get rid of the junk, polish it so it shines, and look beyond ourselves.
You see, having a story to tell is great. But having a story to sell is even better. And if you make the mistake of publishing the story you tell before you’ve made it ready to sell, you’ll end up with a bunch of books on your hands and no buyers. You’ll miss an opportunity to gain an audience, touch lives, and create meaning.
Here is how to turn your story into one that sells:
1. Get rid of the bad writing.
Most people think they can write. Because we all have access to computers — or at least pen and paper — we fancy ourselves writers. But just because I have access to a light switch doesn’t make me an electrician. Having the tools doesn’t mean ability to use the tools. So be honest with yourself. Can you use the tools? If you can’t use the tools, all is not lost. It’s time to hire a good editor or even a ghostwriter. Give that person your story and let her or him help you tell it. This person can chisel away the bad and leave you with something good.
We recently edited and designed a book for a client who — like many — had written a novel loosely based on her life. She told an interesting story, but the writing was a mess. Every line had a mistake, it seemed, and I rewrote and rearranged passages to make them flow better and make sense to the reader. When she got the heavily edited manuscript back for review, her confidence was shaken. She wasn’t sure what to do with the manuscript, whether she should abandon it and start over with the book. But I calmed her. I let her know that I had taken care of the problems with the manuscript and she didn’t have to start over with this one, because I took the brunt of work and did it for her. But I advised her to read through the edits so she could understand why the changes were made so this information could help with her next project. She now realizes that selling a story is about more than typing out words.
2. Make sure it’s not all about you.
Sure, it may be your story, but if you want other people to buy it, it needs to relate to them. It’s not enough to tell the reader every detail of your life for 100 or 200 pages. You must somehow turn that focus to your reader. The reader has enough of her own drama going on; she’s not interested in drowning in yours for chapter after chapter. But she may be interested if you can relate your story to something going on in her life. So sure, tell your story, but invite your reader in, too.
We just finished editing and designing a book for a client who wrote about her family’s journey with Alzheimer’s. The manuscript was very narrowly focused when I received it, and would likely only be of interest to family and friends. But we edited it to have a bit of a broader focus, while allowing her to tell her family’s story. So now her book can actually be relevant to and of interest to a reader who wants to know more about that topic, but isn’t a member of the family. Her story now has more marketability.
3. Don’t overwrite.
It’s easy to think we have to use the longest words, the most complex sentence constructions, and the most “intellectual” similes or metaphors when we write. But resist the urge. Of course your tone will depend on the genre or type of writing you are doing, but in general, go for more conversational and less formal. If you are writing to entertain or to inform, most readers don’t want to have to think too hard, so don’t try to come up with obtuse and obscure references. Those will only confuse and most likely fall flat. Same for word choice. Don’t use big, five-syllable words when a shorter one will do. This doesn’t mean you want to stick to short, choppy sentences, but it just means that you don’t need to pull out your dictionary or thesaurus to write your blog post or magazine piece. Simple is better, in most cases. Simple doesn’t mean the writing will be easy, but hopefully it ensures that the reading will be.
4. Look for the silver lining.
If you are writing a memoir or life story, whatever you share must still have some positive resolution at the end. It’s easy to think that just because you have gone through some serious drama in your life, that people would be interested in that. But sharing page after page after page of hurt, pain, and heartache is exhausting for your reader.
So even in a life story of grief and pain, offer your reader some lighter moments, as well. And remember to leave your reader something good at the end. This doesn’t mean you have to wrap everything up all nice and sweet and sprinkle candy all over it, but it does mean you need to reward the reader for sticking with you through it all. You need to come out of the book experience with some lesson, insight, coping strategy, or some other point of growth or positivity to share with your reader. If you can’t find that in your story, then you don’t have a story to sell. Not yet. Do some more soul-searching.
5. Consider the benefit.
Every story must have a benefit to the reader. Will the reader be entertained? Will the reader be informed? Will the reader be compelled to act? As you tell your story, examine what you want the reader to get from that story. This will influence how you write it. And if you can’t figure that out, then a good editor or ghostwriter can help.
I’ve seen lots of stories come across my desk. And those that have had the best chance of reaching others are those that have been revised with these five pointers in mind. Whether you run a writing business or you are only interested in writing and selling your story, you can write a story that becomes one that sells when you think beyond what the story means to you and consider what it will mean to your reader. This is true whether you are turning your story into a novel, sharing it in a memoir, including it as the foundation for a self-help project, or something else altogether. Use these pointers whether you are an individual with a story, a company telling a story, or a church or organization using a story to paint a picture.
I’ve helped individuals turn their stories into books that have brought awareness about social issues, raised money for cancer, built brand awareness, been the foundation for a business, and showcased a legacy. Your story is a powerful tool. Use it properly.
You truly can turn the story you tell into one you sell.