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Nic Nelson
Nic Nelson
Courtesy Nic Nelson

Festival of Books Spotlight: Meet the Wordsmith Helping L.A. Writers Find Their Voice

As any beginning writer well knows, there are times when your ability and talent can only take you so far. A different perspective is needed to take the work to the next level. Computers and word processors can correct spelling and even choose words for you but only an experienced wordsmith can offer critique that might enhance creative expression. For those with book ideas who choose self-publishing as a way to get their work out there, an expert can provide guidance in many ways — from idea presentation, to proofreading, to the graphic design on the cover, title pages and contents.

Nic Nelson has been helping writers do all this and more for 15 years now. His company, Wordsmith Writing Coaches, offers academic services, tutoring and coaching, while his author services include seminars, workshops and one-on-one work for book and screenplay writing.  Originally from Arizona, he began his studies in Taiwan, where he spent part of his time teaching English, before coming to back to the United States, earning his degree at Claremont McKenna College. His goal was to become a professor but, after helping a friend put together an essay and getting great feedback for it, he changed course and started helping writers out of his home. He did so for seven years before opening his office in the area known as the Vermont Corridor in South L.A.

The printed word might not be as popular as it used to be, but Nelson's diverse roster of clients and titles (many of which will be showcased in his booth at the L.A. Times Festival of Books this weekend) proves that many still value seeing their names on the cover of something readers can hold and take with them. Though he works with many writers who chose to publish in ebook format, Nelson still feels the demise of the printed word has been overly exaggerated. As a writer who utilized Nelson's services last year, I found it reassuring to know he agreed with me that actual books are still more rewarding to read than anything on a cold, glass screen. Of course, he respects the decision of the writer or the reader to pick the medium of their choice. Here, we discuss his work with writers and much more.

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L.A. WEEKLY: So how did you get started as a writing coach?
NIC NELSON: I've always been entrepreneurial. I've started probably seven different companies or nonprofit organizations over the years. Wordsmith Writing Coaches is my seventh [venture]. So I did a lot of different things. I sold aftermarket bicycle parts. I was a construction worker. I worked with gangs in South Central Los Angeles. We did an afterschool enrichment program for grade-school children. All kinds of stuff.

So I was in graduate school and looking for a job, and I really wanted to hurry up and finish my graduate school degree. I wanted to work in academia. A friend of my wife's had finished all of her coursework for her doctoral degree at UCLA. I don't think it's any great secret that in the social sciences, one of the ways that premier schools like UCLA maintain their quality control for their doctoral candidates and maybe for masters too, I don't know, is they make it very difficult for you to finish. So basically the head of the program had told this woman she had six months to improve her writing ability in English, or he'd drop her from the program. And she was panicking. So she needed to improve her academic writing. And academic writing is fun for me. So I said, well, maybe I can help you.

How did you help?
So I started meeting with her and helped her through the writing process for her next qualifying exam. I edited it with her, showing her what I needed to change to make the sentences flow and make the paragraphs flow and the argument work. At the time I was unemployed and I thought I ought to be spending my time on doing freelance writing projects, but it wasn't really making ends meet. So I thought I should charge her something and she was delighted to pay me for my time. So she turned in that second qualifying exam and the department head called her into his office again and said her writing had dramatically improved since the last time. And then he asked her, "Have you found a writing coach?" And she thought, I have to be honest, I can't lie about this. So she said, "Yes, I found a writing coach, someone to help me write my qual." And he said, "Well, that's fine, this guy's obviously good. I think you should keep him."

When the time came to apply for a grant for the research that she needed to do, her adviser encouraged her to write me into her grant and she did. I asked if [she had] friends who also needed help. And she said yes, let me introduce you. So that's how Wordsmith Writing Coaches started. I've always thought of myself as a wordsmith. And then this department head supplied me with the term writing coach and I thought, well, I guess that's what I am. That started in August of 2004 but I didn't move into this office until November of 2011. I used to work out of my home for years.

Wordsmith's South L.A. storefront
Wordsmith's South L.A. storefront
Courtesy Nic Nelson

What gives you the most satisfaction in dealing with writers?
I love helping helping people tell their stories well and publish wisely, or in the academic side of things, helping people present their thinking clearly. I encourage my academic clients also to seek publication even if they're not going into academia as a field. [They] put all this work into writing this thesis or this dissertation —perhaps some part of it can be adapted to a publication. And let me tell you, the adaptation from a dissertation to a trade publication or trade paperback is a lot easier than writing the dissertation in the first place. I have several clients who have stayed with me through a series of books. Jim Likens, he's written three books with me. All three of them are in print right now.

I love seeing the light of comprehension dawn in people's eyes. I love that. Everything I do, I do from the standpoint of a teacher and a mentor. Ultimately I want to help people so much that they don't need me anymore.

You help people with all different kinds of writing projects, but how many have you helped put out actual books?
I'm not sure. But there's at least 12 — maybe more — whom I have helped all the way through the whole [book] process. I help with academic writing, professional letters. I helped one young entrepreneur to come up with a really compelling brochure for their business.

What are the challenges of working with writers?
One of the drawbacks is writers are not wealthy, so I will never get rich helping writers. Also, it can be a challenge to convince certain writers that they need to take seriously what I'm telling them. Sometimes it's an ego issue but most of the time I don't think it's ego, because I watch their faces and I listen to their voices and I think honestly, some of them are simply not convinced that I'm right. And so they need to go and make their own mistakes and they need to hear it from two or three other people. And that will finally convince them that I was right in the first place.

What are the differences between fiction and nonfiction writers?
Nonfiction authors, I find, are very pragmatic. They have a purpose. They have an idea. They have an argument that they want to make, and anything that will help them make that argument more clearly, they're willing to listen. But fiction writers tend to love the words that they've put on the page. And you know, if they just love a certain scene or a certain turn of phrase, and I tried to tell them, wow, that sounds beautiful, but it really doesn't work here. And here's exactly why it doesn't work. There's a thousand ways of doing it, right? And this is not one of them. You know? But I'm the kind of writing coach and book editor who's very careful not to impose my own voice onto the author's voice. And if you want to play fast and loose with certain elements of English grammar or spelling or whatever, that's actually fine with me as long as we do it on purpose and we have a reason for it.

In making writing the best it can be, doesn't it come down to the reader?
Correct. The audience is king. As a writer, you need to know who you're writing to and make sure that you adapt your own writer's voice to reach the people you want to reach.

Wordsmith at 2018's Festival of Books
Wordsmith at 2018's Festival of Books
Courtesy Nic Nelson

Favorite books and writers you've worked with?
I love A Redemption Story, by Paul Pommells, which was a novel by a man who was actually incarcerated when he wrote and published it. It's quasi-autobiographical — he intentionally changed it to be a fiction narrative and the main character is not actually him, it's an amalgam of him and like two other people that he met in prison. I found it an emotionally moving novel and very rewarding to bring to print. 

Makers of Fire by Alex McManus — it was such an honor to work wuth Alex. He's a futurist and an atheist who has fallen in love with Jesus. Think about that for a moment. I would get into these long conversations with him that were fascinating. He's an enigma and a fascinating thinker.

There are so many others but Jim Likens is another author I really enjoyed working with. He grew up in the weed-patch camp that John Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath. He right now is a very highly honored professor emeritus of economics at Pomona College and he's also just a huge figure in the world of credit unions. He's a living ligament of American history and culture, and a living example of someone who started out really poor and ended up at the pinnacle of economics and banking.

What do you do when a writer comes to you with a book that's not very good?
Well, there's always a reason why it's not very good. The easiest problem to fix is the mechanics. If the book is poorly written, that's no problem. I mean, I can fix sentences left and right in my sleep. The problem is when the book is not very good because of a disconnect, a disconnect between the theme and the plot or the theme and the character arcs or between the plot and the character arcs. Or theme or plot is confused.The way to fix that story is to interview the author about it and say, what were you really trying to do here?

And even if the answer is, "I just want to create a source of residual income, I just want to sell books," OK, then you need to learn how to write pulp fiction. You come up with one really strong good formula for writing your book and then just write a dozen books according to that formula and change up the characters and change up the setting but keep the plot and the character arcs and the theme about the same. And if writing craft improves or you're able to keep on paying me or other editors to help and you can create a series that will present the same powerful emotional experience over and over again, you'll find a market.

So every manuscript has a chance.
Not always in its present state. Every book or every manuscript is the seed of something that can be successful. One of the most daunting things for authors is when they discover how much work has to go into making that seed germinate and grow and come to fruition. It's a lot of work.

Isn't it really just about content and presentation?
Absolutely. But it's even more complex than that. There's the other side of the equation, the human side, and that's the author and the fans. And it's so important — author branding and building a strong platform for yourself and then understanding how to use that platform to engage, to find people who will love what you've written. Finding people that whatever you've written is the scratch for an itch that they've had for a long time. Those people are out there. Wordsmith Writing Coaches, 2716 S Vermont Ave. Ste 6, Vermont Corridor. (323) 363-4417. wordsmithwritingcoaches.com

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