Champagne glass

Champagne

We can explain some things better by treating them twice, once descriptively and then chronologically. The “champagne glass” form has the traditional beginning, telling the readers what the story’s about and why it’s important, and the traditional ending giving a sense of closure.

The middle has two sections divided by a clear transition. The first section treats the subject descriptively and analytically, and then transitions to a second section retelling the story in narrative chronological form. This form works best to straighten out a complex series of events, such as a long budget process, perfecting an invention, controversial election results, or a complicated rescue.

Here’s my favorite, from the St. Petersburg Times. (By the way, a manatee is a marine mammal resembling a walrus, about ten feet long and weighing 1000 pounds as an adult. It must surface to breathe at least every 20 minutes.)

Manatee-1

FIREFIGHTERS RESCUE MANATEE FROM CRAB TRAP ROPE

SAFETY HARBOR – Struggling to free itself from a crab trap rope wrapped around its neck and body, a young manatee was rescued by two city firefighters.
The men worked nearly an hour to calm the 10-foot-long mammal before freeing it Thursday.
“With anything that big and powerful, you could get hurt if you got in its way,” said Safety Harbor Fire Capt. Max Shimer, who estimated the animal’s weight at 600 pounds. Shimer and firefighter-paramedic Ray Duke freed the manatee.
“We knew they are gentle creatures and wouldn’t hurt us on purpose. But we didn’t know if this one was injured or how it would react to us. We just played it by ear,” Shimer said.
The rescue operation began shortly after 8 a.m. when the struggling manatee was spotted by Bill Pleso, the city building maintenance foreman. He was making his daily inspection of the municipal pier when he saw the animal about 150 yards north of the pier.
“I could see he was tangled in a crab trap,” Pleso said later. “He was dragging two buoys with him.”
Pleso, who said he regularly sees manatees around the pier, radioed City Hall for help. The Florida Marine Patrol was called, as were the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and Sea World. The two agencies and Sea World are involved in the state’s mammal rescue and rehabilitation program.
Fire Chief Jay Stout said his men agreed to attempt the rescue when he learned it would be several hours before the Sea World team would arrive. Since no one knew if the mammal was injured, Stout said he felt the rush was necessary.
Shimer and Duke got into a boat and paddled up to the manatee. “It was frightened at first, but gradually it seemed to sense we weren’t going to hurt it,” said Shimer. It did not appear injured.
For nearly an hour, the men reached out to calm the manatee each time it surfaced to breathe. Finally, Duke reached into the water, held the rope as close to the animal’s neck as he could and cut through the rope with a pocket knife.

When the rope fell away and the manatee was free, “about five other manatees, all much larger, suddenly appeared out of nowhere,” Shimer said. “They came up to the surface and rubbed faces and noses. It was a pretty neat experience.”

The lead tells us what the story is about: “a young manatee was rescued by two city firefighters,” followed by details of the creature’s plight and the rescue. Halfway through, the story gets retold in chronological order: “The rescue operation began shortly after 8 a.m….”

And the story ends with Shimer’s terrific quote. In traditional inverted-pyramid thinking, that quote is too good to come at the end; an editor might move it up, weakening its power in the most emphatic position, the end.

Champagne glass pieces are inherently long, and they’re hard to cut. You would choose this form because the second, chronological telling helps the reader understand complex events.

[Had any adventures with this form? Let's hear them.]

Published in: on June 24, 2009 at 10:47 am  Comments (8)  
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Jammed middles

Readers have to struggle through sentences with jammed middles. The problem is not just too much information in too little space, but also delaying what the reader needs to know.

Sometimes the jam happens between the subject and the verb, the anchors of a sentence, as in this example:

In 1668, the Earl of Clarendon fell, and Pratt, whose reputation had been irrevocably linked to his patron’s since the unfortunate timing of the completion of Clarendon House in Piccadilly at the very moment when many Londoners lost all their worldly goods (and their property) in the Great Fire, took retirement.

Forty words intrude between the subject “Pratt” and the verb “took.” Easily solved with two sentences, and nothing separating subject and verb:

Pratt’s reputation had been irrevocably linked to his patron’s since the unfortunate timing of the completion of Clarendon House in Piccadilly, at the very moment when many Londoners lost all their worldly goods (and their property) in the Great Fire. In 1668, the Earl of Clarendon fell, and Pratt took retirement.

Sometimes attribution and dependent clauses get in the way:

Bats are mammals, but the species now afflicted by white-nose syndrome are cave-hibernating bats, and when the bats lapse into their hibernation torpor, said David S. Blehert, a microbiologist with the United States Geological Survey in Madison, Wis., their core body temperature drops down to just a couple of degrees above cave conditions, as low as 44 degrees.

This sentence has three independent clauses, with a dependent clause (“and when…torpor”) plus a 14-word attribution in the middle. The reader can’t tell if Dr. Blehert said all three independent clauses or just the third one. Better to introduce the speaker and then let him talk.

Sometimes extraneous facts slow things down and clutter up the middle, as in this example:

Dorothy (played by Judy Garland in the 1939 movie), backed up by the Tin Man (Jack Haley) and the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), slaps the paw of the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) for frightening her dog Toto and says, ‘It’s bad enough picking on a straw man, but when you go around picking on poor little dogs….’

The inserted movie-star names keep delaying the action, and complicating the list. They add nothing to the readers’ understanding.

Sometimes parenthetical asides can make readers lose the beginning of a thought by the time they get to the end of the thought:

I made some notes on it, not because it reminded me of anything in Chaucer – the research I was in fact beginning – nor as a seed for the major research project it would become – it was years before I recognized that – but because I did not want to lose the details of this image.

Those four dashes create a feeling of hesitation and a tone of uncertainty.

And sometimes the middle gets cluttered with flashy junk:

Editors could still accommodate a degree of financial risk in their acquiring, and so it came to be that Reif Larsen, a 28-year-old graduate of Brown and Columbia, with his explorer’s name and brief history promoting a Botswanan marimba band, ignited the spending impulse of the publishing world, producing such a fire that he extracted a reported $1 million for his first novel, ‘The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet,’ a book in which each page seems a vitrine constructed to exhibit the author’s discursive, magpie imagination.

This reviewer was evidently trying to compete with “the author’s discursive, magpie imagination,” while her editors snoozed.

I would not call any of these sentences bad. None of the jam-up in the middles is accidental, but they’re hard to read. In writing, we always have to balance readability against voice.

Published in: on June 23, 2009 at 1:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Bulleting lists

We use lists to put a lot of information in small space, but the density makes the paragraphs hard to read, as in this example:

Understanding nutrition is very important. But why does it have to be so complicated?
High carb, low, carb, no carb. Good carbs, bad carbs,. Simple carbs, complex carbs. High fat, low fat; saturated fat, trans fat; polys and monos. Antioxidants, vitamins, minerals. Soluble fiber, insoluble fiber. Serum cholesterol, dietary cholesterol.
Who can keep all that stuff straight?

Of course, that second paragraph is about confusion, which it illustrates.

We use bullets to open lists up. Short bulleted lists work best. Long lists work better with numbered items, although numbers imply hierarchy..

Roy Clark, in his forthcoming book, The Glamour of Grammar, lists the benefits of bullets:
· The ability to check information at a glance.
· Relief to the eye in the form of white space.
· Information conveyed in tight spaces.
· Order, or at least the appearance of order.

Much easier to read than this paragraph version:

Roy Clark, in his forthcoming book, The Glamour of Grammar, lists the benefits of bullets: the ability to check information at a glance, relief to the eye in the form of white space, information conveyed in tight spaces, and order, or at least the appearance of order.

Here’s another example:

While he is not raising money for libraries, Mr. Bradbury still writes for a few hours every morning (‘I can’t tell you’ is the answer to any questions on his latest book); reads George Bernard Shaw; receives visitors including reporters, filmmakers, friends and children of friends; and watches movies on his giant flat-screen television.

The writer, Jennifer Steinhauer, uses semicolons rather than commas to divide the items in series because some of the items have internal punctuation. We could open that list to make it easier to read by using bullets. But bullets are formal and carry connotations of technical material, unsuitable here for the informality of Bradbury’s activities.

Every mark has meaning for readers, even the shape of the bullet. This list approves of some items over others:

Bullets

Published in: on June 22, 2009 at 5:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ordering lists

The order of things in a list has meaning. Consider our old friend, the 2-no-1 template of emphasis:

2-no-1

This visual list imitates the form of what it describes; it’s a diagram of positions in a sentence, paragraph, section, or whole piece.

Let’s arrange those three items into bulleted lists, first, in the order they occur:
· Next most emphatic
· Not emphatic
· Most emphatic.

Increasing power:
· Not emphatic
· Next most emphatic
· Most emphatic.

Decreasing power, also alphabetical:
· Most emphatic
· Next most emphatic
· Not emphatic.

Psychological or political factors intrude. Although readers remember best whatever’s at the end, the bottom of a list has the lowest status, can even be insulting. Movie stars negotiate for first billing, not last; nobody campaigns for the middle.

You would not rearrange some traditional lists, except maybe for irony: the 12 Days of Christmas (chronological), the Ten Commandments (sacred), “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” (carved in granite). Obviously, you would not rearrange something inherently alphabetical, like Morse Code: A: dot dash; B: dash dot dot dot; C: dash dot dash dot, etc. Actually you might, to make the code easier to memorize by pairing opposites: A: dot dash; N: dash dot, etc.

The order you choose depends on what you’re writing about and what you want to emphasize.
[Got any anecdotes about subjects reacting to list placement?]

Published in: on June 21, 2009 at 10:50 am  Leave a Comment  
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Dumb assignments

Sometimes you get an assignment you really don’t want, because your heart isn’t in it. It means nothing to you and sounds boring, and you can’t imagine investing ten seconds of your life in it. So you probably do what most writers do in that situation: you procrastinate, making it worse. Here are some strategies for dealing with other people’s dumb ideas:

1. Keep delaying until your editor forgets.

2. Write something sort of related to the assignment, hoping your editor won’t notice.

3. Do some gathering, then confer with your editor, presenting the assignment material dully, but related material brilliantly.

All three of these tactics involve guerilla warfare, and will probably lead to worse assignments, or none. Here are some better tactics:

4. Do some gathering and then discuss the assignment with your editor, moving sideways.

5. Get pissed off about the subject rather than the assignment.

6. Ask yourself how the assignment touches your life or the lives of people you know.

7. Start gathering information immediately before you drown in self-pity.

8. Narrow the context by finding the specific and the particular.

9. Expand the context and start exploring the context.

10. Brainstorm with a friend about potential approaches.

11. Imagine potential readers, why they would read this piece, and what they might want to know.

12. Talk to real people. As Jim Nicholson, the star obituary writer, said, “Everybody’s interesting if you’re a good enough
reporter.”

13. Go find someone whose life will be affected by this subject.

14. Do the assignment as quickly and simply as possible to get it out of the way.

The gist of all this is to give the idea a chance. Talk to people and see what happens.

I once asked Murray Kempton, the famous curmudgeon columnist for Newsday, how he dealt with dopey ideas from editors. He said he immediately leaves the building and starts talking to people on the street “to gather material to throw in the editor’s face to show him how dumb his idea was.” I asked him if his technique worked. He replied, “You know, once I start talking to people, the idea gets pretty good.”

Published in: on June 19, 2009 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Crossing boundaries

Human beings make decisions at boundaries in their lives. Patients dying in hospitals tend to die in the first hours of New Year’s Day, or of their birthday. Readers decide whether to keep reading just before boundaries, and they remember what they read on each side. Writers need to frame boundaries so readers read across them, and remember important points.

Where are the boundaries? Between the lead and the first section, between sections, and between the final section and the ending. The material on each side of a boundary is either an ending of a unit, or the beginning of another, and therefore emphatic.

Emphatic

We lure readers across boundaries by clarity, gold coins, cliffhangers, and subheads. Unconsciously, readers are always thinking about stopping, and they jump out when they start to feel stupid or confused, or know enough. If your readers think, “How’d I get here” or “Where’s this going,” they’re about to wave goodbye. As they realize they’re approaching a boundary, their urge to leave increases. So you need to write even clearer just above a boundary, such as a section break.

We can place a “gold coin” just as the readers start to wobble. A gold coin is something that will amuse or delight them, such as a neat quote, clever sentence, interesting character, or amusing anecdote. As readers enjoy the gold coin, they predict there are more to come, and keep reading across the boundary.

You’re familiar with cliffhangers from movies, a suspenseful moment originally used to join together parts of a serial. If one episode ends with the heroine tied to a railroad track with a train whistle in the distance, you’ll come back next week to see if she survives. (Of course, we know she will, but we wonder how.)

You write a cliffhanger just before the boundary. Here’s one: “Outnumbered two to one, the defenders of Midway wondered if anybody would survive the Japanese assault.” Here’s another: “Once you have a vaccine against swine flu, you have to ask who will get the shots and who might die.” One more (these are fun to write): “I grin in triumph as I peel the paper collar from my chocolate soufflé. I mean, we’re talking James Beard Award tonight.”

Subheads act like headlines, intriguing readers to read further. They’re shorter and harder to write, and need to point forward. Here’s one to get you to read my final section:

MAKING THE JUMP
One other boundary is harder to control, the “turn” or “jump” in a newspaper or magazine to the next page, because the writer has almost no control over where it will fall. David Finkel, formerly a feature writer with the St. Petersburg Times, used to sit beside the copyeditors as they laid out his stories so he could rephrase the passage just before the jump. You can write a cliffhanger, for instance, and ask the copy desk, if possible, to place it strategically.

Remember that all these devices sit in emphatic positions. Make sure you want to emphasize what you put there.

Published in: on June 18, 2009 at 8:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Gold coins

About halfway down any longer piece, readers’ interest and energy begin to sag. They start thinking about stopping. They need a lift to their spirits and expectations. So we put something wonderful just before the sag, a little bit that will refresh them, a reward for reading that far. We call these little gifts “gold coins” or “goodies” or “Oreos.”

GoldCoins

Suppose you’re a witch, and you want to lure two children from one side of the forest into your hovel on the other side. You open a box of Oreo cookies, spreading them out, one every 50 feet along the path. The children find the first Oreo, share it, and spot the second one just up the path. They eat that one, and another, and so on until they end up in your oven.

That’s how you draw your readers all the way through a piece to the ending, by spreading the goodies. Inverted-Pyramid thinking would put the whole box of cookies at the beginning, and the children/readers would simply eat it there and never read beyond your second paragraph. We space the rewards to keep readers advancing.

A gold coin is something readers will enjoy, such as a terrific quote, a striking new character, a wonderful sentence, a telling detail, or an amusing anecdote. Quotes work especially well as gold coins, such as Dorothy Baker’s pronouncement that she intended “to turn over a clean breast.” She also swore never “to count her bridges before she burned them.”

A new character, saved until later, can pick up the narrative, such as Ruby Thewes, played by Renée Zellweger, in Cold Mountain.

In general, we avoid striking sentences because they momentarily stop the reader. But that striking quality is exactly what we want in a gold coin. For example, here’s a wonderful sentence from Adam Nicolson’s Seize the Fire: “A man-of-war would sail with a breeze so slight it could just be felt on the windward side of a licked finger.” (Boy, I wish I had written that sentence.)

Telling details are especially golden. When World War II broke out in 1939, the staff in the Louvre scrambled to pack and store their art treasures. Lynn Nicholas gives this ironic detail: “One curator was amazed to find her packers, recruited from two department stores, the Bazar de l’Hôtel and the Samaritaine, dressed in long mauve tights, striped caps, and flowing tunics, as if they had just stepped out of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian pictures they were about to wrap.” Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa. (New York: Knopf, 1994). And a splendid sentence too.

Here’s the ultimate anecdotal gold coin, known in the trade as “the Chicken Test.” It comes in the middle of an immense and very technical series on the design of the Boeing 747 airliner, written for the Seattle Times by Peter Rinearson:

Boeing is a little touchy about the subject of chicken tests, and points out they are required by the FAA. Here’s what happens:
A live 4-pound chicken is anesthetized and placed in a flimsy plastic bag to reduce aerodynamic drag. The bagged bird is put in a compressed-air gun.
The bird is fired at the jetliner window at 360 knots and the window must withstand the impact. It is said to be a very messy test.
The inch-thick glass, which includes two layers of plastic, needn’t come out unscathed. But it must not puncture. The test is repeated under various circumstances – the window is cooled by liquid nitrogen, or the chicken is fired into the center of the window or at its edge. ‘We give Boeing an option,’ Berven joked. ‘They can either use a 4-pound chicken at 200 miles an hour or a 200-pound chicken at 4 miles an hour.’

No matter how long or difficult a piece is, if you reach that anecdote, you will not stop reading.

Published in: on June 17, 2009 at 12:54 pm  Comments (1)  
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Emphasis by position

In any unit of writing (sentence, paragraph, section, whole piece), different positions have differing degrees of emphasis, or memorability. Readers remember what you put in emphatic positions. We call this scheme “2-no-1” because whatever comes last has most power, whatever comes first has next most power, and anything in the middle has no power by emphasis.

2-no-1

Consider these examples:

“My wife Joan finds me adorable,” Don said.
“My wife Joan,” Don said, “finds me adorable.”

By moving the attribution (“Don said”) from the final (most emphatic) position to the middle (non-emphatic) position, we emphasize the word “adorable.” (Maybe Joan wrote that second sentence and put Don in his place, in the unremembered middle.)

We can also de-emphasize something, even hide it, by burying it in the middle of a paragraph:

The candidate wanted voters to see him as a populist friend of the working man. But he voted 17 times against measures to raise the minimum wage. His stump speech always concluded, “Vote for me, vote for yourself, vote for Joe Sixpack.”

Or we can emphasize his voting record by putting it at the end:

The candidate wanted voters to see him as a populist friend of the working man. His stump speech always concluded: “Vote for me, vote for yourself, vote for Joe Sixpack.” But on measures to raise the minimum wage, 17 times he voted no.

In this second version, we used the emphatic end of the paragraph to highlight the candidate’s actual voting record, and we changed the end of the final sentence to close with “no.” Double emphasis, double hit.

Traditionally journalists put the attribution at the end of the lead, like this: “The Bush administration tried to legitimize torture by defining it out of existence, according to a report released by the Justice Department Thursday.” Newspapers try to sound objective and neutral, and sentences like that help them. The key phrase “legitimize torture” disappears in the middle, and the most emphatic position, the end, contains the least important piece of information, the attribution.

The 2-no-1 template also applies to sections. Readers can remember what a whole section said better if they have a sense of framing: a memorable beginning of the first paragraph, and a memorable ending of the last one. (Yes, there’s a contradiction here.) Like this:

Jacques Pepin’s newest Cooking Techniques video teaches expert knifework and then applies it to prepping vegetables. [Several paragraphs]
Add this video to your collection. Your vegetables will thank you, and you’ll still have all ten fingers.

Stories have a beginning, middle, and end; memorable stories have a strong beginning and a strong ending, often echoing each other. Whatever you lead with, and whatever you end with will stick in the readers’ heads. So you choose what you want them to remember and place it in memorable positions

Suppose you’re writing a piece with lots of people’s opinions in it. You give all of them fair amounts of space, but you’d really like to endorse one of them without saying so. Let that person speak last, and readers will remember most what she said.

Here’s a problem. If you want readers to remember what you end with, you have to write the whole piece so compellingly that they read all the way to the end. I’ll talk about how to achieve that in a later blog, on “gold coins.”

[“Gold coins” sits at the end of a sentence, the end of a paragraph, the end of a section, and the end of this post. How emphatic can you get?]

Published in: on June 16, 2009 at 9:54 am  Comments (16)  
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Using obscenity

Decisions on quoting obscenities depend on the policies of the publication, usually enforced by editors. Any obscenity, even “heck” or “darn,” will offend somebody, and publications differ in how offensive they choose to appear. Rolling Stone and Taste of Home publish in different universes.

So-called “family newspapers” are particularly prissy, based on the idea that children should never read “bad” language. Actually, the children I know talk dirtier than I do. The truth is, newspaper editors can’t stand irate calls from retired English teachers at 10 a.m.

We have a whole arsenal of tactics for dealing with obscenity: deleting it, quoting it verbatim, paraphrasing it, labeling it, writing around it, and coding the offensive words.

Sometimes you just quote it. If you’re writing about what someone said, and how it was said is important, your readers will wonder what you’re talking about if you don’t tell them. When former Vice President Cheney hurled an obscenity, the public had a right to know what he said that caused the fuss. Whatever readers imagine will probably be worse than the actual quote.

You can code the offending words. A famous blast of expletives erupted at the end of a football game in Tampa between the Jets and the Bucs. Millions of fans heard it all as parabolic microphones broadcast the exchanges on television. Here are some excerpts from a local paper trying to capture the action without offending kiddies or little old ladies:

1. What the Jets said was, “%%&**!!!” or words to that effect.
2. A gutter of four-letter words bubbled from angry New York Jets.
3. “McKay, you’re an ——-,” screamed one New York Jet.
4. “McKay, you’re an a–hole,” shouted offensive lineman Ted Banker.
5. “F— you,” McKay shot back.

The first two examples leave readers who didn’t watch the game wondering what was yelled. The third one, my favorite, tries to hide the word “asshole” by coding it with dashes. Readers, of course, will feel compelled to decode it, so they have to search their entire obscene vocabulary for a seven-letter word beginning with a vowel! Numbers four and five don’t hide anything; they just create an appearance of propriety. I’ve protected the newspaper, by the way, the St. P——–g T—s, by coding its title.

You may end up emphasizing obscenity by not quoting it and playing with the naughtiness of language, as in this example: “Ellis, known for a brand of psychotherapy called Rational-Emotive Therapy, seasons his talks with a generous sprinkling of words that end in s—. As in bull and horse.” Or this one: “All she has to do is get them to her appointed contact, but it’s obvious in that parking garage that the milk is spilt, the cat’s out of the bag, and the you-know-what has hit the fan.”

Political correctness winks at offensive language, as when we use such common euphemisms as “the N-word” or “the F-word,” as in this example: “She uses the ‘f’ word, and she uses it a lot, usually as a transitive verb.” The insertion “[Expletive deleted]” calls attention to the fact that the speaker used an expletive; readers usually assume the worst expletives. Remember the Nixon tapes?

Let’s go back to first principles and ask why you would ever publish any obscenity:
· The obscenity is the news.
· We want to characterize someone who swears a lot.
· We have to use a quote that has obscenity in it.

In any context in any publication, obscenity jumps off the page, and can distract readers, even very sophisticated or dirty-minded readers. We must balance this distraction, this break in the flow of reading, against the specificity of the obscenity. Every word you write must have meaning and purpose, so you would never use obscenity gratuitously. You would delete it unless it is germane to a quote. If you must use an obscenity, I believe you should publish it verbatim, full force.

Here’s a tricky exception. Obscenity may be part of your voice, in a publication that allows it. In that case, let ‘er rip.

[Let’s hear your views on this controversial stance. Anybody want to contribute anecdotes?]

Published in: on June 15, 2009 at 9:15 pm  Comments (2)  
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Letting loose

Most writing advice is given by planners, who tell you to decide what to say and then say it. Tenth-grade English teachers demand detailed outlines before you put down a word. Most manuals on writing novels prescribe creating a chapter outline and character biographies. Newspaper editors want a “budget line” as early as possible, sometimes before you’ve gathered any information. Plan, then execute.

But some of the best stuff comes unplanned, and the secret is to let it.

A decade ago, I suddenly started writing novels. Although I’m a dedicated planner, I found myself writing fiction without a plot. That worried me a lot, but I really fretted when my characters started acting on their own. A pilot in my third novel suddenly committed a murder, which he had clearly planned ahead of time without me. Hey, this was my novel, not his.

My novelist son Jason advised me to relax my control-freak impulses, and follow the characters when they took off on their own. If what they did or said panned out, I could develop it. If it didn’t, I still controlled the Delete key.

One night in a Washington, D.C. motel, I got up at 1:00 a.m., typed non-stop for an hour, and went back to sleep. The next morning, I found a chapter on my screen that I had not planned or imagined. It was better than what I had written before. Strangest of all, it had no typos. I’m a hideous typist, and this text was perfect. Who wrote it? The staff in my head.

I use a similar technique to write leads. I type the main body of a piece first. By the time I get to the ending, there’s a lead in my head unprompted. I’m not talking about literary mysticism. The staff in my head composes the lead from the words they see me typing.

In her book Naked, Drunk, and Writing, Adair Lara uses exercises, questions, and prompts to bring about what she calls “epiphanies,” breakthroughs in thinking. For instance, you keep asking yourself why you did something and writing down the answers. “Your fingers can type things,” she says, “you didn’t know were in your head.”

Chip Scanlan of the Poynter Institute conducts an exercise where participants write a short piece, then toss it out and write it again, and toss it out and write it again, etc. On my fourth version, I astonished myself with this lead: “I’m glad my father died.”

In a less structured version of this technique, you turn the screen off and just type. (Watch your fingers so you don’t type gibberish.) Don’t think, just type. Don’t think, just type type type. And the staff in your head will tell you what they’re thinking about.

Letting go helps with form as well as content. Sometimes you can’t come up with a structure, things just won’t jell, or everything seems equally important (or unimportant). So you just type sentences, lots of sentences about your subject. Don’t worry about how they go together. After a while, clumps will emerge. As Michael Ruhlman put it, “Telling the story generates the shape.”

If I can suppress my Internal Control Freak, so can you, when you need to.

[Got any other techniques for turning yourself loose?]

Published in: on June 15, 2009 at 8:30 am  Comments (3)  
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