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What I Learned About Writing From American Idol


I’ve been watching American Idol this season. Idol was never one of my top shows, mostly because of the abrasive nature of Simon Cowl. He always galled me to no end with the cruelty he’d used in his criticism, so I stopped watching years ago. When I learned Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban were judges, I decided to give the show another chance, and I’ve been watching all season now.


Here are a few points I’ve seen the judges make that I feel apply to writing as well.


  • Rejection sucks, but don’t give up. This season had a number of singers who had failed to make it in past years, but they came back and gave it another try. Some were rejected again. Some even cried when they got rejected. But most vowed to come back next year.

I understand the crying bit. When I was writing for the newspaper I had a story that I wanted to write so badly I could taste it. I pitched it to the editor and she loved it. But no matter how I approached the interviewee I could not agree to get them to do the story. I actually wept because I had failed to deliver the story to the editor. But I knew there would be other stories and I went after them. Later, when I received my first novel rejection, I took the lesson from the newspaper and moved forward to other publishers, other books until I eventually sold one.

  • Forget about stardom. Work on your craft. Harry Connick Jr said this to a contestant who had talked about becoming a star in her interviews. He thought her focus was in the wrong place. Fan voting aside, American Idol’s basic concept is about helping the contestants grow their singing abilities so they will have the skills to become professional singers. Every week they get constructive criticism from the judges, who expect them to take those suggestions and improve their singing.

The same thing is true for writers. If we focused too much on becoming NY Time bestsellers, our book sale numbers, ranking number and climbing the writing ladder we can lose sight of what really matters—a book that holds readers and makes them want more. Great books are what will bring you to the best seller lists and it usually doesn’t happen overnight. So, keep the stars out of your eyes so you can see the words on the page.

  • Sit at the piano and pound out the notes. One more great quote from Harry Connick Jr. to one of the contestants who constantly sings sharp. Another way to say this is practice makes perfect. Singers can’t expect to go out in front of an audience and sing well if they aren’t 100 percent sure of the notes coming out of their mouths or if they can’t hear what those notes are. You only know those notes because of practice and listening. Trust me on this one, because I’m a singer, too. I’ve stood before audiences wondering if I would flat a high note or miss a low note that was out of my range because I hadn’t practiced until those notes were second nature to my vocal cords.

For writers this translates into write, write, write and rewrite. Then rewrite some more. Newbie writers so often think the first words on the page are their best. WRONG. You must hone your writing until the point comes when you begin to automatically get those commas in the right place, eliminate too many pronouns and noun sentence starts, stop writing in passive voice, and stop showing and start telling. Spill your guts on the page the first time if that’s how you have to get the story out, but then sit down at the keyboard and pound out the bad words until the story is pitch perfect.

  • Discover the difference between singing the emotion and letting the emotion come from inside you.Keith Urban Most singers know how to emote on a song. The natural rhythm of the melody, the musical markings on a piece—sing softer, sing louder, pick up the pace—which the composer has given them as guidelines, lend themselves to creating emotion in a song. But the difference between a singer who is just putting on the emotions of a song and one who is actually sings from the heart is the difference between light and dark.

As a reader, I have been able to tell when an author has lost interest in her book or series of books because the writing changes. Plots fall apart. Endings seem rushed. The whole feel of the author’s writing is different, and not in a good way. As author, I would suggest that if you don’t feel one-hundred percent in love with your story, it’s going to show when you write it. In fact, it may even show as you are writing the story. Do yourself, and your readers, a favor. If you don’t love your story idea, don’t write it. Put it away or re-plot it or do something to the work that makes it exciting to you again. Write the stories of your heart. And don’t worry about whether they fit the current trends. A story an author is writing to only follow trends and make a sale will never measure up to a story written from the heart.



Have you learned any lessons from televison’s reality shows that you can apply to the writing life? I’d love to hear them.