Interview by Morgan Baker
Allison K Williams is a force in the literary world. In addition to celebrating the release of Seven Drafts: How to Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, she is the social media editor of (and frequent contributor to) Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She and Dinty W. Moore, founding editor of Brevity, run Rebirth Your Book, a series of international writing retreats (which were held online during the pandemic.)
Allison, along with Ashleigh Renard (author of Swing: A Memoir of Doing it All) host The Writer’s Bridge, a bi-weekly community chat (held on Zoom) about platform; each live, interactive event typically attract more than 200 writers interested in talking about navigating social media, pitching, and promoting your book. As if that’s not enough, she’s also at work on two YA novels.
Lest we forget, she also has her private coaching and editing practice: The Unkind Editor. (That’s how I originally met Allison; I needed an editor for a memoir project I had stuck in a drawer for years. Her edits and comments were spot-on. She had encouraging words as well as pointed critiques. She made my writing better.)
I wondered how she kept it all straight. So I jumped right in on my Zoom call with Allison K Williams.
Morgan Baker: How do you maintain your patience and enthusiasm for your many projects?
Allison K Williams: I actively put things on the backburner when it’s time to focus on something else. Right now, I have two young adult novels in varying stages of completion. Both of them had to be back-burnered while I worked on finishing Seven Drafts.
It helps a lot that I work on a bunch of different things. It really benefits me that I have such a broad background. I can edit a lawyer his memoir and I can edit an Indian guide’s trekking memoir. I’m able to take on a lot of different projects. I work with so many different authors writing so many different genres. Everything is a new challenge. Everything is interesting.
MB: What inspired you to write Seven Drafts?
AKW: Here’s something a lot of authors won’t know: the vast majority of editors have something that they called a boilerplate, just like a boilerplate contract. There’s stuff every contract needs, and there is stuff every writer needs. I started noticing I was typing the same kind of comments in different manuscripts:
Can you show this in dialogue?
Search for all the time you’ve said ‘explained’ and make those dialogue’.
I was saying the same things in people’s editorial letters.
Authors tend to make the same set of mistakes at every stage of the process. It’s human. It’s human to put in too much explanation. It’s human to use too many prepositional phrases. It’s very human to have stuff in your head that you think is on the page.
MB: Your audience is clearly writers, but could you tell us a little more about who would benefit most from Seven Drafts?
AKW: My audience is all the people who are ready to work hard on their book, but they don’t know where to start. They don’t know what steps to do in what order. They need a plan. They’re curious enough to learn the reasons behind the plan, which is why the book is not just a checklist.
MB: How long did it take to write Seven Drafts?
AKW: About half the book came from Brevity blogs I wrote since 2013. I assembled the book in about a month in the sense of going, ‘Okay, let me copy paste these blogs into Scrivener (a program designed for writers), I’m pretty sure I’m going to use chunks of them. Let me copy paste these chunks of editorial letter into Scrivener. Let me put down these random thoughts scribbled in notebooks and I assembled everything that could possibly go into the book in Scrivener.’
I then checked into a hotel for six days twice. I wrote 40,000 words each time.
MB: When I started reading your book to prepare for this interview, I read it like a writer. Then, all of a sudden, something flipped in my brain. I realized I could use it as a teacher.
AKW: I just had a little writer orgasm right now! This will be a good book for writing teachers as well because a lot of what I’ve written about is the stuff we know that we don’t know we know.
MB: One of the things I’ve been curious about for a long time, and you reference in the book is your past life as a circus performer and a theater person. When and why did you switch to writing? What do you see as similar?
AKW: I was the artistic director of a company called Aerial Angels and I employed 25, mostly women, circus artists. We did corporate events, like hang over this buffet, while people eat shrimp and ignore you, or slide out of the ceiling to present Rolex watches to the salesman of the year.
We also did a lot of street performing. That’s what made my writing better, because when you’re street performing two things happen. One is that you pass the hat after the show. If the show is not funny, if the words aren’t good, if you haven’t related to the audience, you don’t eat. You get a lot funnier when eating depends on funny.
The second thing that happens is that over 20 years, I did more than a thousand shows, most of which were the same show over and over and over again — this time we have a trapeze act, that time we had an aerial hoop act, but we’re making the same jokes about ‘remember folks, we have no health insurance.’ So you get many, many practices tries on each joke. Did it get laughs? No, it didn’t, let me change the wording. Did it get a laugh? No it didn’t, let me change the emphasis. You get to keep practicing and practicing and practicing until you get a sense for okay, now I can ad-lib and get a laugh every time because I know how language works. I know to put the noun or the verb at the end of the sentence. Words with K and P in them are funnier than words without them. Pickle jackpot!
MB: You’re based in Dubai now, right? How long have you lived there?
AKW: I’ve been here since 2013. I was pretty much here half the time and on the road half the time until the pandemic hit. Because I was writing, I was teaching, I was doing a lot of travel so that I would have things to write about. I’m very, very lucky that my husband is incredibly supportive. I mean, privilege-wise, I’m white. I have no children. I have no pets. My nearest family members live 6,000 miles away, and inshallah, they’re all still in good health. My husband also enjoys doing housework. I really have a tremendous amount of privilege that’s supporting what I’m doing.
MB: Going back to the book… can you talk a little about the revision process?
AKW: Writing is the only art where people don’t see much of the process. In dance, everybody does plies in the same room. Art — everybody does sketches on newsprint. Everybody goes to rehearsal together. But writing, everybody goes ‘Oh look at this finished book’. This is tragic, especially for beginning writers, because they don’t know how much their brain is filling in what’s not on the page. There’s no peer working at the next desk to tell them.
Frequently, people hand me what is an extremely rough draft and say, “All it needs is a quick proofread.” Those are like the magic words of danger. It is almost certain that what they actually need to do is start over and rebuild the book from the ground up and about four more drafts. People who honestly only need a quick proofread are already on, like, draft 11.
MB: As I read your book, I’d think, ‘This is a lot of work!’ But then, every section was like, ‘Oh but this is a fun section.’ And, ‘oh this is another fun section.’
AKW: I’m glad to hear this. That’s the thing I didn’t realize until I started teaching, that most people who are writing a book for the first time really don’t understand that there are usually a lot of drafts. That’s not true for every writer, though. There are writers who write an incredibly detailed outline and they just write their book all in a row, and it’s basically done. They’re doing their rough draft work in a 50 to 70 page outline.
MB: How did you start your editing/coaching business?
AKW: I started with Google Adwords and referrals from friends. Then the business kind of built as I made myself more public. People would say, Oh, I really love what you had to say in your Brevity blog. I really liked what you had to say in that Facebook post, will you be interested in editing my book, and the business built to the point where I started charging for sample edits.
I always put my prices on my website because I want to know how much something costs and it drives me nuts when other people who are providing artistic services do not put their prices on their website. Open pricing reduced the number of tire kickers. And it also gave me a reason to have a book, for the people who can’t afford or aren’t ready for a full manuscript edit, or can’t wait for my availability. Here is the best of my advice, that you can have for $17.95.
MB: What do you want your readers to walk away with or take away from reading this book?
AKW: I want them to be aware of the amount of work it is to write a publishable book–whether that’s self-published or traditionally published — and yet still be excited to do it. That’s the goal.
MB: How do you think your book is different from other writing books?
AKW: I’m so glad you asked because I wrote about this for the proposal when I sold the book. The big names out right now are Stephen King, On Writing. Really good. Fifty percent is the personal writing journey of Stephen King and 50 percent is here’s some stuff that will make your writing better, and about the publishing process. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Fabulous book, incredible book, there’s a reason it’s still selling like hotcakes. Almost entirely philosophy: you can be a writer, you can do this, you should write without fear. Then you’ve got Natalie Goldberg,’s Writing Down the Bones.It’s spiritually driven. You’ve got John McPhee’s Draft No.4, where it’s very esoteric. You’re left to glean the lessons for yourself from his beautiful prose.
I didn’t think there was a book that was, ‘let us sit down and talk about all of it.’ Let’s get excited enough to write a book, all the way to let’s have enough stamina to publish a book. And every step in between. It really is a manual. There’s all the information they need in one book.
I’m not mean, but I spend my time telling people what’s wrong because praise makes you feel good, but criticism makes your work better. To save money on editing, I say get your first 25 pages edited. Because whatever the problems are in the first 25 pages, those are the problems in the whole rest of the book. You can fix those yourself, once you know they exist. By fixing them yourself over and over and over again, you’ll learn and you won’t make the mistake again.
MB: What’s the best draft? What should writers focus on if they had to pick one thing? Or is it the whole?
AKW: The first most-important draft is the vomit draft. The vast majority of people who start a book, do not finish it. If you can finish a first draft, you’re already head and shoulders above 90 percent of the people who’d like to write a book. The most important draft after that is the story draft, where you’re really looking at does it all make sense? Does it feel satisfying to the reader? Does it pay off?
Part of the writing process, and one that a lot of people have a hard time doing, is the shift from me-centric — I’ve got to get my dream, my vision, my words onto the page, which you have to have or you’ll never finish, otherwise people get in your head and, give you doubts. But then you have — to making a pretty abrupt shift to how is the reader going to receive this? Are they going to get what I want them to get? It’s fine to write for yourself, just like it’s fine to dance for yourself, or to paint for yourself or to make patchwork quilts for yourself. But if you want other people to have the same joy in the thing of beauty that you made, then you have to make sure that it’s ready for primetime.
Morgan Baker is an essayist and feature writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe Magazine, Talking Writing, The Brevity Nonfiction Blog, Cognoscenti, The Bark, Motherwell, and multiple alumni magazines and anthologies. She teaches at Emerson College and is the managing editor at thebucket.com where she has published both essays and feature pieces. After a year in Hawaii, Morgan is back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two Portuguese Water Dogs .She is revising her memoir about her empty nest.
wonderful interviewer, wonderful interviewee, wonderful interview. gonna buy me the book.Thanks for this, Morgan.