In this week’s writer Q&A, we’re excited to interview Nailah Harvey, an author, editor, teacher, and grammar enthusiast based in Los Angeles. Not only is Nailah an absolute gem of a person, but she’s also an incredible writer who is great at making the rules of writing, which are often complicated and confusing, accessible to everyone. (Check out her New York Times interview on how to self-publish your book) She recently launched a grammar workbook that you can (and should!) get your hands on here.
Hi Nailah! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a Los Angeles-bred millennial writer on a mission to save the world from bad grammar. Just kidding! (But not really). If we’re being technical, I’m a 10x published author and book coach with a knack for words…but boy did it take a while to get here. I started blogging inconsistently in 2010 and publishing memoir-ish books a few years later after living and teaching in South Korea, but everything changed when I found my voice, my niche, and my target audience in 2016. This was the year I took inventory of the ways the English language was being used and misused in everyday communication. With a desire to help remove the language barriers that often create blocks between landing jobs, writing books, and more, I started a workbook series entitled Look Better In Writing to address the common misconceptions of Standard American English grammar.
Look Better In Writing has since evolved into a podcast and personal brand highlighting English language competency overall…and it has also influenced my decision to become a professional book editor. Now, I seek to share with the world my superpower—the ability to tell one’s story with clarity.
What do you typically write about?
I typically write to encourage and inspire. Whether it’s a blog post, an article, or a book, my writing is intended to motivate other writers to improve their writing skills, overcome hurdles, and navigate the writing process. I aim to help aspiring authors put ideas to paper by…well, by putting ideas to paper. It’s quite meta, really.
You are the grammar queen! Why is grammar so important?
That’s very kind of you, but I don’t consider myself to be the grammar queen. I am simply a fan of literacy! I’ve witnessed the positive effects it can have not only on your career, but on the quality of your life. Words are the gateway to different worlds, both literally and figuratively (the shameless puns are not intended).
Moreover, I believe grammar is the foundation of the English language. Having a good handle on written communication is a beyond vital skill set that cannot be overlooked.
“I believe in ripping the bandaid off and getting through a terrible first draft as quickly as possible.”
What’s your writing process like? Any special tools or apps you use?
I believe in ripping the bandaid off and getting through a terrible first draft as quickly as possible. No matter what I write (a short story, an essay, an article, etc.), I dump all my ideas and thoughts out onto paper (or a screen) and let the first draft breathe. Then, I go back after a few hours—or maybe even a few days—and edit my work. I call it “massaging my words.”
After my personal edit, I pass my work along to a few trusted loved ones who know my writing voice. I allow for them to critique my work. I take their notes and add or remove what I feel is necessary.
If I’m writing a book, I’ll go a step further and hire a professional copy editor as my final touch. After it’s all said and done, I’ll submit my final draft and pray for the best. LOL
“Strive for excellence instead of perfection.”
What’s been your proudest moment as a writer?
My proudest moment as a writer came not from awards or accolades but from mentorship. Five years ago, I sat with my childhood friend—a successful physician assistant from Compton who wanted to add her unique voice to the medical field. She had a passion to help inner-city students interested in medicine tap into their true potential, and she chose to serve this specific demographic by way of her transformative story.
Through a lot of goal-setting exercises, we were able to build her brand message and publish her memoir in 2018. We literally went from ideation to manifestation. Since then, my friend has sold over 1,000 copies of her work and has spoken at countless high schools and colleges in the greater Los Angeles area.
Any advice for writers who fumble with grammar and technical skills?
My advice is to adjust your expectations. Strive for excellence instead of perfection. I say this because we’re bound to have grammar and spelling errors in our work. We’re human. We make mistakes, therefore, we write mistakes. But don’t let the reality of mistakes keep you from writing with clarity.
That said, one way to check your work regardless of your level of technical skill is to read your words out loud after every draft. The cadence with which you speak is often the flow intended for your writing. Speaking your words will help you catch fumbles quicker. And if you’re really bold, have someone else read your work aloud. When others fumble with your words, it’s usually a tell-tale sign that they need a little restructuring.
The more you “rinse and repeat” this process, the more your grammar and technical skills will start to grow, and you’ll develop an eye and matching ear for grammar.
“They try so hard to say the right thing that they end up saying the dry thing.”
What are some common mistakes you see writers make?
Overthinking! I can often tell when writers are striving for a perfectly-written piece, grammatically speaking because their words are sometimes flavorless. They try so hard to say the right thing that they end up saying the dry thing.
How do you beat writer’s block?
I listen to music. Songs are stories told on top of a vibely beat. Lyrics are what attract me to a song. The puns, idioms, and words interwoven into a specific tune get my writing wheels spinning. I get inspired to also have fun with my words and create an experience for my readers like songwriters do for their listeners.
Listening to music while walking is when the magic really happens. The endorphins add that extra oomph. My creativity kicks into high gear.
Tell us about your self-publishing experience.
My self-publishing experience has been a journey. I self-published my first book in 2013 with minimal experience and an unclear brand. I had limited resources and a small audience outside my family and friends. I couldn’t afford to invest in a copy editor or book designer, so I did everything myself. And boy did the Amazon reviews reflect that. Ha!
Thank goodness I’m committed to being better as opposed to giving up. For instance, this interview is taking place in 2020—seven years after my first published title. That means It’s taken seven years for me to have all of my books republished and re-edited with professionally-designed book covers. But I feel like my readers deserved to see my personal writing journey in real-time. I also feel like it’s my responsibility to see my books evolve because that’s how serious I am about my craft.
Before I move into the traditional publishing space, I want to continue investing in my (author) business and doing my best to market and promote my titles without the backing of a large company.
How can writers get started with self-publishing? Do you need a massive platform?
Writers can get started with self-publishing by setting a goal. With this first step, writers can properly prepare for the research and resources needed for their book journey. Setting a goal includes deciding which publishing type makes sense for you according to your short-term and long-term desires. Goals allow you to consider your budget and deadlines. But most importantly, they help you identify your target audience a.k.a. who you want to serve. This is not only the foundation of writing a book, but it’s the foundation of building a brand.
What do you love to do when you’re not writing?
It’s music to the top of the list again. I love listening to music when I’m not writing. But I also love watching documentaries and comedy specials, and I love listening to personal development podcasts. I’m in a season where I’m obsessed with storytelling. I want to read, watch, and listen to people share their journeys through the medium of their choosing. I just love stories!