Napoleon Hill Sayings Applied to Writing

If you have been following this blog for any length of time, you’ve discovered that I have gained a great deal of value from the writings of a couple of successful businessmen, W. Clement Stone and his frequent co-author Napoleon Hill. Although I was privileged to meet only one of them (Stone) in person, their practical wisdom has been of help to me many times during my careers in education and writing/publishing.

In fact, I get a daily e-mail “thought for the day” from the Napoleon Hill Foundation that has included numerous offerings  helpful to me in my writing. Perhaps you would find some gems that will help you, too. (You can subscribe to the same “thought for the day” at the above link.) In subsequent posts, I will share a few of the quotations that have been of greatest inspiration to me.

I copy and paste into a Word document the Napoleon Hill posts that seem most applicable to my situation. Occasionally, I look over those accumulated statements for reaffirmation of my purpose and inspiration and encouragement to continue in my efforts. While doing that recently,  I realized that certain topics among the quotations recurred repeatedly. The most frequently mentioned subjects were

  1. attitude,
  2. initiative and action,
  3. dealing with defeat, and
  4. purpose and goals.

One’s attitude and outlook determine whether he or she will take actions toward fulfilling the primary purpose and the several goals for achieving that purpose. Anytime one takes the initiative and steps out in action, of course, he or she risks suffering defeat or rejection. How one deals with those setbacks often determines whether he or she is able to achieve success. So all four of these categories of thought work together for either success or failure.

In future blog posts, I will share several of Hill’s statements on each of these categories and apply them to the writing process. I hope that they will reveal ways that you can apply them to your own writing efforts.

Here’s a little teaser dealing with the need to continue looking for opportunities to learn and improve in our craft.

Don’t be satisfied with being good at your job. Be the best. . . . One of the surest ways to climb the ladder of success is to choose a job that you would do even if you didn’t earn much at it. (Napoleon Hill)

Now if that doesn’t describe writing, I don’t know what does! Periodicals are paying today about the same as they were when Mark Twain was writing–if you can get even that much. But if you’re called to write, then write, even when the money doesn’t follow immediately. But keep learning your craft, always improving your knowledge and skills and striving to be the best writer you can be. If you do, success will come eventually. Perhaps not in monetary terms, but in many other ways.

Check back for similar gems of Napoleon Hill’s wisdom, and find ways of applying them to your writing.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson



Lessons from Current Reading

Lately, I’ve been reading a sadly ironic biography of a talented but confused author who spent his life trying to find himself. He rejected what he had in his own backyard and wandered to strange vistas in search of what he thought he wanted only to realize that what he had had was really what he was and what he wanted all along.

Sound confusing? It is. But that’s life. Or rather, it’s the life of John Orley Allen Tate as recounted in Thomas A. Underwood’s book Allen Tate: Orphan of the South (Princeton, 2000). Growing up in the post-World War I South, in a dysfunctional family with parents who chased get-rich-quick schemes and could never settle down in one spot, Tate hated everything about his lot in life. He did everything he could to distance himself from not only his family but also the South and its traditions. Yet, he found himself bound to an overly protective mother who even went to college with him.

Tate wanted to be a famous poet. He wanted to be taken seriously as a writer. Above all, he wanted affection, attention, and approval by the literary elite outside the South. He enrolled in Vanderbilt to gain the education he thought he needed to achieve all those things, but he quickly found himself caught up in the group of writers known as the Fugitives, so-called after the name of their little literary magazine called The Fugitive. Among the group’s members were several faculty members with whom Tate developed a love-hate relationship. Men such as Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, and Edwin Mims. As Tate’s literary career struggled along, his grades suffered along with his finances, and he ended up getting his older, financially successful brother to pay his way. He sought the approval and acclaim of such Northern literary critics as H.L. Mencken by striving to write in the newly arising Modernist style.

Tate produced several poems that he considered magnificent Modernist works of art, but they were so convoluted and complex and lacking in message that even fellow Modernist writers in his circle failed to understand them. Tate seemed to think that the more obscure his writing the better it was. Enough people whose opinions he valued encouraged his continued production of such writing that he became increasingly disgusted by the uninitiated and unenlightened Southern morons who couldn’t understand what he wrote.

Eventually, Tate became so disgruntled with the perceived boorish literary ignorance of the South (they didn’t know good writing when they saw it, he thought) that he decided to leave the South for good. He finally achieved his dream of living among the literary luminaries of New York City. Later, he traveled to Europe and lived among the expatriate Americans in London and Paris who were trying to produce avante garde, Modernist literature. At first, Tate was enamored of those writers, meeting, partying, and rubbing shoulders with such writers and publishers as Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Mark Van Doren, and others. And he relished the libertine life they lived.

Over time, however, he realized that those people were no more than literary snobs who cared for only their own writing, the people who gushed about their writing, and other writers who sought to imitate their writing. About the time this light was dawning for Tate, a publisher offered him contracts to write sequential biographies of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. His research for those books took him back into the South, and that was when he realized that what he really longed for was a return to his roots in the South.  So the prodigal returned.

Tate became a motivating influence for the development of a movement known as Agrarianism, a protest against the ill effects of industrialization, and especially what he saw it doing to the South. He helped organize a group of like-minded writers known as the Agrarians, who became most famous for their collection of essays titled I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition.

Although I haven’t yet finished Underwood’s book, I’m learning that the overriding lesson from it is that one should not despise or be ashamed of where he or she is from but rather to honor and reverence it. One should be himself, not try to be someone else from somewhere else. Look to your own backyard and make the most of what it holds for you.

Oddly, one of my favorite authors also was influenced by many of the same authors with whom Tate worked at Vanderbilt, but he turned out much differently. Rather than rejecting his roots and seeking literary success somewhere else, Jesse Stuart followed the sage advice of Donald Davidson: “Go back to your people. Go back and write of them. Don’t change and follow the moods of these times. Be your honest self. Go back and write of your country. Your country has your material.” (For more on Stuart, see my article “The Beloved Country” in The Writer, April 2016 at this link:

Stuart’s writing is everything Tate’s was not. It’s understandable. It deals with common people. It honors Stuart’s Southern heritage and people. And it has a message, a legitimate “takeaway.”

The subtitle of Underwood’s biography is Orphan of the South. If Tate was an orphan, it was an orphanhood that he himself created. Maybe by the time I finish the book I’ll find something about Tate that I like. To this point, however, I find him to be an orphan that I wouldn’t want to adopt!

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

“Eyes on Your Own Paper!”

During grade school spelling tests, my teacher often uttered a cryptic general warning: “Please keep your eyes on your own paper!” Without accusing any particular individual, that was her way of letting someone whose eyes were seeking help with the spelling of a difficult word know that she saw what they were about to do. She was also warning the rest of us not to be tempted to look for help in the wrong

But I’ve also seen this temptation arise occasionally in my writing career, and I was reminded of the lesson by an article in the latest issue of The Writer. In times of discouragement, when rejections seem to multiply like the proverbial rabbits, when acceptances are as rare as the proverbial hound’s teeth (whatever that means!), I find myself looking at the apparent successes of other writers and thereby being distracted from my own projects. I find myself envying those who seem not to have to struggle with their writing, who get dozens of great reviews and other publicity, who hold successful book signings, and who are inundated with invitations to speak. And then I look back at my own track record. Invariably, I get even more discouraged. The stolen glance at another’s work doesn’t help at all; it only hurts.

Every ministry, including writing, is a journey, and that journey is different for each person. Each person has his or her own calling with its attendant struggles, whether apparent or hidden. Each has discouragements. For some, success seems to come unbidden and effortlessly; for others, it’s a continual struggle. One writer struggles to complete a single project and get it accepted for publication; another has his work accepted as fast as he can crank it out. Despite one pastor’s best efforts, his church remains small, and growth seems negligible. For another pastor, his church blossoms and grows beyond all bounds, seemingly without effort on his part.

But we can’t look at what others are doing; we must keep our eyes on our own paper, do our duty, live our life as God has laid it out for us. And what might seem at a glance to be successful might in reality be only a sham. Comparing our journey to that of someone else is counterproductive.

When the Jews were rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem under the direction of Nehemiah, each family group was assigned a specific portion of the wall on which to work. Every family did its assigned task without worrying about what other families around theirs was doing. No one tried to tell his neighbor how to do his job. Everyone had problems, both internal and external. But no one compared others’ work with their own. They just focused on their assigned tasks, and, as a result, the wall was finished. (See Nehemiah 3-6.)

In the New Testament, after Jesus had told Peter what Peter’s future ministry held in store, curious Peter asked him about John’s program of ministry. Christ answered him bluntly, “What is that to thee? Follow thou me!” (John 21:22).

Rather than looking at what others are doing or achieving, we should be so busy doing our own God-given work that we’re not tempted to compare ourselves with others. More specifically, if we should look anywhere else for instruction, guidance, or inspiration, let it be to Jesus Christ, “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). We should “consider Him” (Heb. 12:3). It’s when our eyes wander from Him that we lose our direction, focus, and purpose.

Whatever your God-given calling, “keep your eyes on your own paper!”

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

The Evolving Writer, Part VI–Write for the Intended Audience

If a writer wants his or her message to be understood, one must keep the readers in mind and write to them on their level. Failure to do so results in misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and possibly the total loss of the readers as they, in either frustration or boredom, quit reading.

Many writers make one of two mistakes regarding their audience. They write either above their audience members or down to them. Neither extreme is acceptable.

The writer must know who his or her target audience is. Before you begin writing, ask yourself who will be reading your work. (Whom do you want to reach with your message?) Write using the vocabulary and the sentence structure appropriate to the target readers’ educational level, matching your vocabulary to their vocabulary and prior knowledge of the subject. Don’t assume that the readers know as much as you know about your subject. On the other hand, don’t underestimate them or their knowledge.

Okay, it’s confession time: One of my pet peeves is the writer who tries to impress the readers with his knowledge and vocabulary. Please don’t try to wow or con your readers in this way. Be yourself, and use the terminology and style that is most appropriate to your audience. Remember that your goal is their understanding, not the elevation of your reputation as a scholar or literary genius.

Someone (I’ve seen this quotation attributed to several different people, including the ubiquitous “Anonymous”) once said, “Never try to impress your readers with the profundity of your thought by the obscurity of your language. Whatever has been thoroughly thought through can be stated simply.”

If you keep your intended readers in the forefront of your mind as you write, you’ll avoid this pitfall, and your writing will be brief, concise, precise, and understandable.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

The Evolving Writer, Part V–Be Precise

Precision in writing is as important to good writing as brevity. In fact, precision, and it’s cousin clarity, inevitably produce brevity. The evolving writer will strive to develop all three qualities. Failure to do so will result in confusion and misunderstanding.

In writing, precision means using the best word for your intended meaning. This usually will not be the first word that pops into your head. It will be the word that you discover on your second, third, or an even later revision of your original work.

Mark Twain famously said (and has been quoted widely ever since he uttered the words), “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

For example, we are often tempted to write something like this: “I feel that we should. . . .” What we really mean, however, has nothing to do with our feelings. Rather, we mean something that has occurred in our logic or reasoning. The more precise term would be “I think (or believe) that we should. . . .” We have way too much acting on feelings; what we need is more thinking.

Here are a few ways to get you started on your quest for more precise writing.

  • Use active voice. Rather than writing “The ball was hit by John,” write “John hit the ball.” That construction not only makes the sentence shorter by a third (brevity) but also gives the opportunity to be more precise, as illustrated in the next suggestion.
  • Use vivid verbs. Rather than writing “John hit the ball,” choose a more precise term for hit. The word hit could be interpreted in many ways, whereas more precise options, depending on your intended meaning, might be tapped, tipped, bunted, dribbled, whacked, clobbered, creamed, or a host of other terms, each of which creates a slightly different image in the reader’s mind.
  • Avoid euphemisms, jargon, and cliches. These are the lazy writer’s tools. Euphemisms are words that soften the real meaning, such as writing passed away instead of died.  Sometimes, a euphemism might be appropriate, but such “softeners” tend to open the door for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Jargon is tired, overused terminology that often is confined within a specific profession. Akin to jargon are worn-out idioms and cliches. Rather than using these, come up with new, more precise ways of saying things.

These are just three ways you can make your writing more precise and lively, thereby achieving both brevity and clarity. Begin to use verbal calipers in your writing, striving for precision, the best way of saying what you want your reader to know.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson


The Evolving Writer, Part IV–Cut the Fat!

The next stage for a writer who continues to evolve in his or her skills is learning to “cut the fat.” First drafts are enveloped and permeated by streaks of fat, things that do not really help to carry the essential message. But the evolving writer can learn how to streamline that message and get quickly to its various points, to “cut the fat,” just like a butcher might do.

I’ve already discussed how to “speed your lead,” cutting out nonessentials to get to your point quickly in your opening paragraph(s) . One of my earliest lessons in cutting fat in the body of my writing occurred when the editor of The Christian Writer (now out of print) replied to one of my submissions that he would accept my manuscript–but only if I cut it by half! Those were the days before personal computers and clip-and-paste, so I literally cut my manuscript apart using scissors and taped the pieces together. I then inserted transitions to link those somewhat isolated points. After retyping the whole thing, I resubmitted it, and it was accepted and published.

More recently, the editor of The Writer accepted one of my submissions but asked me to reduce it by two-thirds! It took a lot of work, but I was able to do so, and it was published .

More was involved in my cutting the fat for both of those projects than I can explain here, but here are a few of the ways I trimmed my writing to produce exactly what the editors wanted. These actions seldom will hurt your writing but always will help in communicating your message.

  • Eliminate needless repetition and redundancies.
  • Give only the number of examples, quotations, or Bible references needed to get your point across; don’t pile them up like cordwood.
  • Don’t use a long, complicated word when a simple one will do.
  • Avoid “Pauline” writing (i.e., a long series of complex sentences). Instead, use a variety of sentence structures: simple, compound, and a few complex sentences.

These are only a few of the many ways you can trim the fat from your writing. Begin practicing them and you’ll soon discover many others.

How badly do you want to get published? Be willing to put in the work necessary to cut the fat, radically if necessary (as in the two examples I’ve given), and you’ll begin seeing more progress in your publication record.

What are some ways that you’ve discovered to cut the fat in your writing? Share a few of them with us.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

The Evolving Writer, Part III–Speed Your Lead

When I submitted my first article for consideration, I knew next to nothing about writing for publication. But Paul Poirot, the editor of the journal to which I submitted that piece, taught me a valuable lesson about writing that I’ve tried to apply ever since: Speed your lead.

The lead, of course, is what the professionals call the first paragraph (sometimes a little more) of your piece. It is supposed to pull the reader into the body of your article, to make him want to keep reading.

I no longer remember what my lead paragraph for that first article was, but it obviously wasn’t good enough for the editor. He accepted my submission for publication, but the second paragraph of his letter declared, “I’ve suggested a slight rephrasing to speed the opening paragraph, but believe you’d approve. We can check it further when we send galleys.” (Emphasis added.)

He was gently telling me that my original version had rambled, said more than it needed to say, was verbose. He was telling me that I needed to get to the point quickly rather than beating around the bush or delaying it with nonessential information.

One can create a good lead using many different techniques, including these:

  • a thought-provoking question (but not question answerable with a mere yes or no),
  • an interest-capturing quotation,
  • a startling statement or statistic, or
  • an exciting or amusing anecdote (but not long and involved; keep it short).

But whichever method you decide to use, get with it! Don’t dally or delay or pile on the verbosity. Get quickly to the meat of your article and begin introducing your successive points. Your editor, and your readers, will appreciate it. And your writing will be better.

I framed Paul Poirot’s letter accepting my first-ever submission. It hangs on my office wall today, fulfilling two purposes: it encourages me when I am discouraged with my writing progress, but it also is a reminder to speed the lead of everything I write. Maybe Poirot’s advice to me will be a good lesson for you, too.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

The Evolving Writer, Part II–Hallmarks of Good Writing

All good writers want to keep growing in their craft. In the nearly 40 years that I’ve been writing for publication (has it really been that long?), I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. And the pile of rejections attest to that fact. But I’ve tried to learn from those mistakes, thereby improving my writing.

During that time and through all the ups and downs of my writing career, I’ve noticed seven recurring characteristics that editors seek in the writing they’re willing to publish. The more of these hallmarks that exist in a submission, the greater its chances of being accepted. Conversely, the more of them that are lacking, the greater its chances of being rejected.


Write tight. Make every word count. When in doubt, cut it out. Get to your point quickly. I recognize this as one of my greatest problems. I tend to be too wordy, dragging things out and going into more detail than necessary.


Don’t repeat unnecessarily; avoid vagueness.


Use the best word to say exactly what you mean.


Pay attention to how your writing sounds. Read it aloud. (This will also help you identify typos, grammatical errors, and other problems in your writing.)


Don’t merely write about things, ideas, or concepts; write about them in the context of people.


Be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else in style or vocabulary.


Strive to write beautifully, not by forcing it but by permeating your writing with the other six hallmarks of good writing.

Compare your most recent writing efforts against these seven hallmarks. How many of them characterize your work? Strive to ensure that you incorporate as many of them as you can into your writing. You’ll not only see your writing improve but also find that more of your submissions get accepted for publication.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

The Evolving Writer, Part I

If one is making progress in his or her writing, that writing is constantly changing in many ways. It will be changing in content and subject matter, in form or media, and in quality (and perhaps even in quantity).

I was reminded of this fact recently as I thought back to what has happened to my own writing since I submitted my first article in 1981, thirty-seven short years ago. (It seems like only yesterday that I felt the thrill of opening that acceptance letter that is now framed and hanging on my office wall, a spark of encouragement when I’m getting down about my writing.)

I had had minimal formal education in writing–the required college composition courses and the one journalism class offered by the college at the time. And a lot of papers that I had had to write for my other classes. That was a solid starting point, but it was what I later learned in the School of Hard Knocks that most changed my writing. All the “booklearning” in the world will never take the place of experience.

I began writing about economics, taking common economic principles and stating them simply, illustrating them with everyday examples from my experiences as a young social studies teacher. Later, I began writing about the art of writing, sharing with other struggling wannabe writers the lessons I was learning as my teaching career evolved. (By then, I was teaching writing within the English curriculum. After all, I had a minor in English and was a published writer, so the administration assumed I could teach writing, too.) Then, over time, I started writing about educational topics for fellow educators across the nation. Occasionally, I also wrote pieces for religious publications.

All the while, I continued to tackle those other topics about which I’d been writing. The shift that was occurring in my writing was more an adding to, a broadening of, than a series of complete changes in subject matter.

Simultaneously, I found myself changing in the media toward which I directed my writing. Whereas my initial focus had been on journal articles, over time that focus also broadened. Prompted by a temporary job change, I began writing ad copy, including radio ad scripts, as advertising director for a multimillion-dollar, family-run business. Later, as an editor of technical and scientific documents for a large government contractor, I had to help nonwriter scientists communicate their complicated material in understandable terms. Still later, I wrote textbooks and curriculum guides for junior high and high school students before writing my own books.

Through all of these changes, I was learning, and my writing was evolving. By comparing the wording of my original manuscript submissions with the final edited, published results, I saw how magazine and journal editors had improved my pieces. And I tried to do in later writing what they had done. By complying with editors’ requests that I shorten certain pieces (sometimes by as much as half or even two-thirds!), I learned how to make my writing more concise, direct, and precise. By following suggestions that I eliminate direct Scripture quotations and simply paraphrase the principles that those texts contained, I learned how to insert spiritual lessons into secular publications.

Not all change, however, is good. Sometimes we change for the worse. But our writing can still benefit and improve even from bad change if we recognize and learn from our mistakes. The biggest mistake is not in making the mistake but in not doing anything to correct it. If we try something new and it falls flat, we must either learn from it and do better next time or drop it and move on. Don’t keep repeating the same mistake.

If your writing is not changing, you’re not improving or growing as a writer. Only with change comes improvement. I’m still learning, and so should you. There are no know-it-alls in life. Learn something new. Try a different genre. Test a new market. Keep growing and improving.

This fact is true not only in writing but also in every other area of life, including intellectually and spiritually. If you aren’t growing, you’re dying; if you’re not moving forward, you’re sliding backward. Don’t wither and die as a writer. Change and grow!

I hope in future posts to share some of the lessons that have caused me grow. I’m still learning, but maybe some of what I’ve learned will help you in your writing, too.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson


So Much to Read!

At times, I get frustrated by the amount of reading material that pours in through both my postal mail and my e-mail, every item demanding my attention. There is so much that I can’t keep up with it. And I find myself piling up reams of material in a “To Be Read” file, either as a pile of paper or overflowing electronic files or a crowded computer desktop.

In just one recent week, my mailbox and computer in-box brought more reading material than I could devour in a month of Sundays. The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Southern Writers Magazine, Imprimis, Journal of Southern History. And more. Throw in a dozen or more once-, twice-, or thrice-a-week e-zines I subscribe to and numerous blog posts I follow, to say nothing of article manuscripts and book galleys to proof. And I haven’t touched on the ubiquitous posts on Facebook and LinkedIn. Or keeping up with all the news of the world, nation, state, and local community. Or the voluminous amount of reading I must do in my research for my articles and books and blog posts.

My day is prescheduled for me. If I allow it.

Every so often, I force myself to stop everything else to plow through those accumulated piles, reading a few, skimming others, and merely glancing at still others before deleting them or relegating them to the legendary File 13. I wonder why I bothered to save them in the first place.

I’m convinced that part of my inability to remember things as well as I once did is this innundation with information. (It can’t be purely the rest of aging!) Our minds are overloaded, just like an overloaded electrical circuit. And you know what results when that happens! Zzzzzzt! There’s a short circuit.

So what’s the solution? People have offered several. And I’ve probably tried them all, some more than once, before I again fall off the wagon and begin to see the “to-be-read” pile growing again.

  • Go on a vacation. Media free, computer free, mail free. But the pile is still there, just much bigger than before, when I get back. (No vacation lasts forever.)
  • Prioritize reading material. But that requires taking time to at least skim the material to determine the place it deserves on the priority list.
  • Hit DELETE. Unsubscribe. But then you feel uninformed. Besides, you might accidentally delete something really important. Or the magazine is offering such a great deal to extend your subscription that you just can’t pass it up.

I’ve found (not to say that I’ve perfected this point; otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing on this topic, would I?) that the key, as with most things in life, is moderation. I must resist the urge to sign up for every free e-zine, to follow every interesting blog, to subscribe to every magazine, no matter how interesting and helpful they promise to be. To stop all of them cold turkey would be intellectual suicide.

I must prioritize. In e-mail, only items that are directly business related must be answered. All e-zines will have to wait their turn. All appeals from social or political causes must wait even longer. And spam e-mails that are trying to get me to sign up for a book, training class, or “special report” that will revolutionize my writing and make me a millionaire, DELETE!

But there is one bit of reading that must get the No. 1 slot every day, regardless of what other things are pressing: my reading of God’s Word. Watchman Nee’s motto was “No Bible, no breakfast!” And legendary preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “He who rushes from his bed to his business, and waiteth not to worship, is as foolish as though he had not put on his clothes . . . and is as unwise as though he dashed into battle without arms or armor.”

With so many good things to read, how could I fail to read the best thing?

I also must limit the time I spend on social media and resist the urge to watch every hilarious cute cat video that gets posted. I must even limit how much time I spend in writing my own blog posts. Although I try to do my best writing on this to create a good impression and entice more readers, thereby expanding my writer’s platform and showing that I’m a professional, I also realize that it’s only one arrow in the arsenal. And a blog post’s lifespan is about a day (if that). Besides, it’s meant to be casual and conversational, not academic and literary perfection. So what if there are some dangling modifiers or typos? You get what you get, such as it is, in the amount of time I can afford to devote to it. That’s what I’ve done on this post anyway.

Now I have to shift gears and resume reading for the research I’m doing on my current writing project. But first I must check my e-mail and Facebook. Priorities, you know!

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson