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Lessons Writers Can Learn from American Idol by Kelsey Browning

What? Our own Kelsey Browning [1] was on American Idol?? Okay, okay-so maybe she hasn’t performed on AI, but she has learned some lessons from it, lessons we all can share. Take the microphone, Kelsey – the stage is all yours!

For the four+ years I lived overseas, I watched very little TV. By the time we returned stateside, reality TV and public voting shows were all the rage. Not interested, I thought. Then I got sucked into American Idol, and I haven’t been able to resist a season yet. (Although last year Mariah Carey almost drove me away.)

Great, Kelsey, you’re thinking. But what do your plebeian TV-watching habits have to do with making me a better writer? Are you telling me I can learn something from these young (oh Lord, SO young!) singers?

In a word…yup.

Photo Credit: AmericanIdol.com [2]

Photo Credit: AmericanIdol.com

Seven lessons I think you can learn from American Idol:

  1. Passion can outweigh technique. Week after week, Harry Connick Jr. tells CJ Harris to sing in tune, yet as of this writing (early April), CJ is sticking to the AI stage like a burr. Why? I argue it’s because American can clearly see—and therefore feel—how much the singing, the songs mean to CJ. It’s broadcasted over his face every time he performs.
  2. Taking a risk and busting out of your wheelhouse can either pay off big or can be a big, fat bust. Ben Briley sang “Bennie and the Jets” one week to showcase his range and repertoire. The result? He was sent home. I don’t think this means you shouldn’t take risks (in fact, I absolutely think you should). It simply means you have to go into those risks with your eyes wide open. Know why you’re taking a risk, know what you want to get out of it, and know how you’ll handle the situation if it doesn’t work out.
  3. Opinions are like butts, everyone has one (albeit some are bigger than others). Regardless of the high quality of a singer’s performance, Harry, Keith, and Jen always have something to say. And often, they don’t agree. So who should the singers listen to? It’s not always clear, but I think it’s the advice that hits you square in the gut as either being absolutely right or painfully accurate.
  4. What moves one person doesn’t move another. How often do you see Keith and Jennifer dancing behind their little judges’ desk, totally grooving to the performance, while Harry sits stoically and rubs his chin like a college professor? It takes a LOT to move Harry, but I always believe he has the singers’ best interests at heart. Writers, not every reader will groove to your stuff. It’s okay. You will find your right audience.
  5. Not connecting with your audience can put you in jeopardy. Sam Wolff is a cutie, but he’s shy. The tween girls go crazy for him, yet he just can’t seem to give himself over to his performance. That cost him America’s vote even though he—as Keith would say—has the most perfect tone in the universe. Granted, the judges saved him (and let’s not argue about whether or not the whole thing was a set-up), but Sam is holding back on stage, and it shows.
  6. Being humble can endear you to your audience. Neither CJ Harris nor Dexter Roberts are the best singers out of the finalists. Yet they’ve made it through weak performances and close-vote weeks. Why? I think it’s because America likes their humble appreciation for the judges’ feedback and just good ole Southern boy charm and manners. Good behavior can get you places, people.
  7. The last one standing isn’t always the most talented person. We don’t yet know the winner of season XIII, but I bet if you looked back over the season’s contestants and mined for pure talent, you’d find the most talented person isn’t the person who gets the confetti shower at the end. Is this fair? I don’t know, but it says to me that there’s more to this “talent” business than sheer talent. It takes a multi-faceted person—genuine, talented, persistent, flexible, open-minded—to be the last (wo)man standing.

Yeah, yeah. I know what you’re thinking. That I’m just using this as an excuse to watch and chat up one of my favorite shows. But I’ve honestly learned a great deal about the writing business from watching the American Idols singers chase their dreams.


What do you think writers can learn from other types of artists (or reality TV 😉 )?

On Monday, Author Mindy Klasky [3] joins us.



Kelsey_Browning_-_Headshot (1) [4]

Kelsey Browning [1] writes sass kickin’ love stories and cozy Southern mysteries. Originally from a Texas town smaller than the ones she writes about, Kelsey has also lived in the Middle East and Los Angeles, proving she’s either adventurous or downright nuts. These days, she hangs out in northeast Georgia with Tech Guy, Smarty Boy, Bad Dog and Pharaoh, a Canine Companions for Independence puppy. She’s currently at work on the next book in her Texas Nights [5] series and The Granny Series [6]. Give her a shout at Kelsey@KelseyBrowning.com [7] or drop by www.KelseyBrowning.com [1]. For info on her upcoming releases, subscribe to her Sass Kickin’ News [8].

Carina Press (January 6, 2014) [9]

Carina Press (January 6, 2014)


Published: November 2, 2013 [10]

Published: November 2, 2013

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17 Comments To "Lessons Writers Can Learn from American Idol by Kelsey Browning"

#1 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On April 25, 2014 @ 1:29 am

Hi Kelsey – I admit, watching American Idol was a guilty pleasure of mine for a long time. I skipped a couple seasons early on but two years ago we were so hooked, Marty and I bought tickets and went to the American Idol concert in Cincinnati! I’m off again this year – it bothers me that AI does so little to promote the contestants and the winners. Yes, they get publicity, but the producers could do a whole lot more. Anyway, this is why I’m on again/off again with AI – it makes me go on rants!

Rants aside, this is a great post! I like the points you make, and I agree – every point you make is a valid comparison. I’ll never think of the show the same way again!

#2 Comment By Kelsey Browning On April 25, 2014 @ 4:01 pm

Oh, fun to get to see the show, Becke! I’ve honestly tried to stay away from it, but it’s my guilty addiction. Every year, though, I apply what I see to my own work. A couple of years ago, I learned from Skyler (can’t remember her last name – oops!), that’s it’s fine to be over-the-top. Not long after that, I signed me first contract :-).

Thanks for having me back on RU today!

#3 Comment By G.G. Andrew On April 25, 2014 @ 7:18 am

Wow, I wasn’t expecting to like this post much because I’m not an American Idol fan, but these are solid points that hold true for both the stage and page! I especially think passion does beat technique…not only because it shows, but because it can give us the motivation to keep writing. Thanks for this!

#4 Comment By Kelsey Browning On April 25, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

GG –

Thanks so much for stopping by today. Yeah – I know the show isn’t for everyone, and it frustrates me to no end some weeks.

So glad the points resonated with you even though you’re not a fan!


#5 Comment By Mary Jo Burke On April 25, 2014 @ 7:33 am

Hi Kelsey,

I’ve never watched American Idol, but the lessons are spot on. Jennifer Hudson lost and she’s doing fine.

#6 Comment By Kelsey Browning On April 25, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

Mary Jo –

Excellent point. In fact, I have feeling some very talented people never even made it to Hollywood on AI. People have all different paths to chasing their passions!


PS – And yes, Jennifer Hudson seems to have come out pretty well 😉

#7 Comment By Tracey Devlyn On April 25, 2014 @ 8:23 am

Just goes to show you, you can be friends with someone for years and not know something. I had no idea Kels loved Idol. My hubby is an enthusiast too, and every once in a while he’ll suck me into the madness. 🙂

#8 Comment By Kelsey Browning On April 25, 2014 @ 4:07 pm

LOL – I just like to keep things fresh, Trace! Maybe your hubby and I will have to start comparing notes ;-).


#9 Comment By Carrie Spencer On April 25, 2014 @ 8:44 am

Hey Kelsey!!!

Hope you are doing well! =) I’m a non-TV watcher, except some snippets of CNN when I’m at work, but I have bought the last 3 seasons of Game of Thrones – amazing show! If there’s one thing that show will teach you, it’s plot twists. =)

Awesome to see you here!


#10 Comment By Kelsey Browning On April 25, 2014 @ 4:09 pm

Carrie –

I want to read and watch GoT, but I’m so afraid of getting sucked into something else. However, plot twists would be an excellent lesson for me. Guess you’ve talked me into it!


#11 Comment By Jennifer Tanner On April 25, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

Hi Kelsey,

Love this analogy. Persistence and keeping in mind that someone’s likes may be another’s dislike, is important to remember.

#12 Comment By Kelsey Browning On April 25, 2014 @ 4:12 pm

Jen –

That preference thing has been KEY to keeping my sanity since publication. Not everyone will love my work – that’s a fact. But as long as I love it (and maybe a few other people do too), it’s all good. :-D.


#13 Comment By Kathryn Jane On April 25, 2014 @ 5:52 pm

Great points Kelsey!

I confess I’m an American Idol junkie. Even worse I couple it with Survivor 😉 and I don’t watch much else on TV… I’m the wrong gender for the remote, besides, I’d rather read 🙂

I’ve had a couple of close encounters with the ‘subjective’ nature of readers, more specifically contest judges. It took a while but I’ve grown used to the love hate thing. The same entry got scores of 100%, 100%, 95%, 60% and 55% … at first it was upsetting, but now it makes me grin.

#14 Comment By Kelsey Browning On April 26, 2014 @ 5:58 am

Kathryn –

Thanks so much for popping in! This reminds me of something Jenny Crusie said (wrote) once. She said if your scores/reactions from readers were very disparate, then you have a very distinctive voice. Yes, those 55s and 60s are painful at the time, but it sounds like you were actually doing something very right!


#15 Comment By Sherry Marshall On April 27, 2014 @ 1:48 am

I only watch the auditions of Idol, Dance etc. Once they start ‘making them over’, I lose interest. The connection to my writing is that I realise that I don’t write for a mainstream audience!
My excuse for Survivor is that as a group facilitator and Process therpist I have to watch group dynamics under pressure!
Thanks for being brave and thus allowing all of us to admit publicly our reality show viewing habits!

#16 Comment By Kelsey Browning On April 27, 2014 @ 6:25 am

Thanks SO much, Joshi. Glad you found it useful!


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