What American Idol Taught Me About Writing



I watch American Idol. There. I’ve said it. I’ll even go one step further. I enjoy watching American Idol. In fact, American Idol has taught me something about writing. Five things to be exact. . .

1. The Audition

(you need at least one person in your life who will tell you when you suck)

“That was terrible.” I thought it. You thought it. Randy Jackson said it. Shouldn’t that auditioner have gotten that particular piece of feedback before singing in front of 40+ million people?

The same thing goes with writing. Before I put it out there, I want it to be the best it can be. I want my mother, my husband and my best friend to tell me when to keep it in the drawer. When I write poorly, I want someone to tell me, so I can either spare readers from future pain or go and get some training, practice, and get better. When I hear bad auditions on AI, and yes, some of us are drawn to them like slowing down for car wrecks, I wish those singers had someone in their corner who would have said, “Don’t.”

2. The Work

(it’s not as easy as it looks)

Rehearse vocals, shoot a Ford music video, run through choreography, consult stylists and coaches, participate in an interview, perform live, endure public criticism . . . that’s the week by week schedule during the show. But what about the pre-idol work? The work it took to get there?

Crystal Bowersox, last year’s second place winner, started performing professionally at the age of 10, wrote her own songs at the Toledo School for the Arts, and performed in Chicago’s local clubs in various bands starting at age 17.

Scotty McCreery who won AI last week, learned how to play the guitar when he was ten, sang at his middle school graduation, and while in highschool, performed in a national touring vocal ensemble.

How many writers do you know who tell you they’ve been writing since they were children? They write every day. They have a trunk, a filing cabinet, a flash drive filled with work. Because that’s what it takes: work. Maybe less than the 10,000 hours Malcom Gladwell suggests in his book Outliers, maybe more for some of us, but work just the same.

3. The Risk

(you have to put yourself out there)

Beyond the successful audition, to be a successful singer you have to push yourself. It means a singer must take risks to differentiate himself from his competitors. Those that rise to the top have managed to be unique, yet not alienate their audience.

Insert the word “query” for “audition” and “writer” for “singer.” See what I mean?

4. The Voice

(if you want to know where to focus your efforts, this would be the place)

It isn’t unusual for over 10,000 people to show up per city, per season, to audition for AI. The candidates will dress (or undress) in all manner of eye-catching wonderment with the hope they’ll get some attention. But just as grandmom told you—it’s what’s inside that counts.

Wearing feathers may get you past the first round–it is television after all, but eventually, it’s the quality of your voice that propels you forward.

Close to 130 million books have been published (this according to Leonid Taycher, software engineer at Google Books) and sure, an eye-catching cover might get a reader to look at yours. But if you want people to read beyond the first page, the first paragraph, and the first line, you have to capture them with something special: the sound of your own voice.

5. The Winner

(people vote with their dollars)

In the end, it doesn’t matter who wins AI. What matters is will their music sell? Chris Daughtry came in 4th place in season 5 and his first album went quadruple platinum. Jennifer Hudson came in 7th place in season 3: a gold grammy-winning album and a gold-plated oscar followed.

Talent? Yes. Effort? Obviously. Luck? You bet. But ultimately . . . will you buy the album? The same measure holds true for writers and their writing, in the end, will you buy the book?

Photo credit © Viorel Dudau/

3 thoughts on “What American Idol Taught Me About Writing

  1. What we need is American Idol for writers. Every week the writers have to write something from a judges prompt in a different genre and the audience gets to vote on what they like best.

  2. “people vote with their dollars” those words are so true. Doesn’t matter how much marketing XYZ publishers put into marketing and promoting a book–consumers will only cough up entertainment dollars for what THEY want, not what publishers want them to want.

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