I planned to become a therapist. I ended up becoming a writer. It’s a long story. Over a glass of wine I’ll tell you about it some day.
As an undergraduate I freely inhaled the humanities and played jazz guitar, taking whatever courses I wanted.
Eventually I decided to get practical. I enrolled in a graduate program in Communications Media. It was the late 1970s and that sounded like it would be hot. I’d get a real job. Something.
But what happens if you take two of the most abstract words in the English language — communications and media — and put them together? You get something fuzzy and hard to apply. When people asked what I intended to do with my degree, I never knew what to say.
That was an early lesson in clarity: Make sure you can explain the essence of your big idea in 10 words that a non-expert can understand.
I ended up getting a job as a technical writer in an insurance company. That was real. I put on a tie and took the bus to a big office building and sat at a desk. And produced words — every day.
Our job was to put insurance jargon into plain English. I didn’t get paid much, but the experience was priceless.
Later, at a different insurance company, my boss let me write a product guide. Turns out that the customer service staff at this company — who interacted with real people every day — didn’t understand what the company sold. I created something to explain the policies to people who were new to insurance.
One day, on my way out of the office, I stumbled across a guy who was making photocopies of that product guide.
“You have to understand that people here will kill for this kind of information,” he said.
Lesson: You can write something that people want. You can make a difference in their lives.
In 1982 my father died. (See A Song for My Father.) I decided that it was time to write about something other than insurance. I chose health.
I got a job as a writer at a medical foundation. We produced a lot of health information for patients at the neighboring clinic (pamphlets with titles like “Meet Your Large Intestine”). I gravitated toward the pieces about anxiety, depression, and stress management.
I also learned that psychiatrists and social workers were fun people to party with.
I quit the medical foundation to freelance full-time. Luckily, I got some assignments from Hazelden Publishing and learned a lot about addiction. (Some of the holiest people I’ve ever met are recovering drunks.)
One of my clients hired me to write a book. I holed myself up for months, laboring to produce a tome of near-Biblical prose.
I submitted it to the client.
“This isn’t at all what we expected,” she said.
Lesson: Don’t write in isolation, without feedback. Submit lots of interim documents for clients to review. Then listen to what they have to say. Take it in baby steps.
A few years later I ran across a book titled Becoming a Master Student by Dave Ellis — a textbook for college freshmen. It blew the top of my head off. It was filled with short articles. Each was an advertisement designed to sell a particular learning strategy. There were also lots of exercises and prompts for journaling.
That book was chaotic and energizing — a battery pack between two covers.
I’ve edited 10 editions of Becoming a Master Student, along with many other books. Some of them were reviewed in draft form by the good folks at Seward Incorporated here in Minneapolis.
I learned more from those reviews than I ever did in graduate school. Lesson: If you’re writing for people who want to make lasting changes in their lives, then there are definite things you can do to make your stuff more effective. (See Writing for Behavior Change — A Checklist.)
Options for Working Together
Today we live in the Wild West of publishing. All the rules are being broken. Anybody can become an author. Many people want to write books, which is understandable. There’s so much you can gain from doing one.
Unfortunately, writing a book is hard work. You would not believe how hard. So, some people hire a ghostwriter — or Book In A Box, which has a near algorithmic process for creating a book manuscript.
I believe that very client is unique, and that there is no “one size fits all” process.
Some people come to me with a finished first draft. Others come with simply an idea for a book. Some people want me to refine what they’ve already created. Others want me to take a bunch of stuff — notes, articles, white papers, blog posts, video scripts, interview transcripts — and assemble it into a finished manuscript.
So, I listen to what you want. Then we choose the next steps, which often include creating the core elements of a book proposal.
The Résumé Stuff
I have been writing professionally since 1979. My clients come from the healthcare, higher education, and nonprofit worlds — Cengage Learning, Houghton Mifflin Company, Hazelden Publishing, Mayo Clinic, UnitedHealth Group, and more.
As a writer and editor, I’m particularly interested in books for behavior change — a term that I prefer to “self-help.” I craft texts with exercises, journal entries, and other interactive elements. These help readers move through a cycle of learning — from observation and reflection to planning and action.
Since 1989 I’ve been the contributing editor for the Master Student Series of books published by Cengage Learning. Becoming a Master Student by Dave Ellis is America’s best-selling college textbook, now in its 16th edition.
My books include:
- Career Planning Supplement to Becoming a Master Student by Dave Ellis, Stan Lankowitz, Ed Stupka, and Doug Toft, Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
- Helping Chronically Addicted Adolescents: Problems, Perspectives, and Strategies for Recovery by Cardwell C. Nuckols, A.G. Porcher III, and Doug Toft, McGraw-Hill, 1994.
- The Caregiver’s Journey: When You Love Someone with AIDSby Mel Pohl, Deniston Kay, and Doug Toft, Harper San Francisco, 1991.
- The Disease Concept of Alcoholism and Other Drug Addictionby Norman Miller and Doug Toft, Hazelden, 1990.
- HIV: What You Need to Know by Dorothy Flynn and Doug Toft, Hazelden, 1989.
Do you want to write a book that will help people create positive new outcomes in their lives? I can help you produce a finished manuscript that’s grounded in principles of adult learning and behavior change. For more information, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org