Sometimes, I’m a big old hypocrite, the queen of “Do as I say, not as I do.” I’ll advise the writers I’m working with to create a schedule and allow myself to work when the mood strikes; I advocate joining writing groups but hem and haw about whether to rejoin a national writers association; I spend the day writing about eating right and exercising and spend the night crashed on the couch with a pint of ice cream. You get the idea…
This morning, as I struggled with the best way to creatively tell a story, I asked myself, “What would I tell a coaching client to do?” It reminded me that I’d written a guest post for Rosie Molinary’s blog last year about tricks for becoming a better writer. I decided to take my own advice and I came up with the opening paragraph for the article.
If you’re struggling with a lede or looking to take your memoir to the next level, I hope this helps:
I am a writer.
Still, there are days when I don’t write a single word. Instead, I stare at a blank computer screen, my fingers poised over the keyboard, hoping the right words will find their way onto the page.
I check my email every 30 seconds, waste time on Facebook, start typing, decide the writing is crap and hit delete, give up and read trashy magazines hoping for inspiration. Rinse, repeat.
With deadlines looming, I have no choice but to sit down and make magic happen (or at least get words on the page). Since I make a living selling words, sentences, paragraphs, the articles I write need to shine.
Over the years, I’ve found that following three simple rules makes my writing much better.
Show, don’t tell: You’ve probably heard this before but it bears repeating. The best way to draw a reader into the story is through word art, painting a picture with your words.
In an essay about the thrill of completing your first marathon, you could tell the reader, “Running a marathon is hard” or you can show them what that means: “By mile 25, my legs wobbled, my breath came in jagged gasps and sweat dripped down my back. When I heard the distant cheers of the crowd waiting at the finish line, I felt buoyed by their energy and used it to help me finish the race.”
See how drawing the reader into the story by creating scenes instead of just stating facts leads to more compelling writing?
Do a sensory scan: One of the faculty advisors I worked with in the MFA program at Queens University suggested this exercise and I’ve found it very helpful: After you finish writing a piece, go back over it and mark the places where there are sensory descriptions. Note uses of all five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste.
I recently finished several chapters of a memoir about my dream to own a farm. During my sensory scan, I realized that none of the descriptions included scent. Farming is stinky! Writing the memoir without talking about the smells on a farm meant it was missing a key ingredient.
If your sensory scan reveals that you have only described the way things look, think about ways to incorporate descriptions of the other senses.
You won’t engage all of the senses in every piece but it’s helpful to use descriptions of at least two or three.
Go on a media diet: The worst thing I can do when I’m working on an article or writing a book is read what others have written on the topic. The reason? When I read someone else’s work, their words echo in my thoughts and I lose my own voice.
When deadlines loom, I try to steer clear of the Internet, magazines and books so that I can focus on how I want to tell the story. Sometimes I crawl into bed and write longhand in a notebook.
My creative juices really flow when I’m not staring at the squiggly green line in MS Word that tells me I have a grammatical error on the page!
Whether you’re blogging, working on a novel or writing the company newsletter, try these techniques and see what happens.
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