3 Ways to Improve Your Writing

I spend a lot of time staring 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.

When deadlines loom, 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, and 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.”

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 a book about farming. During my sensory scan, I realized that none of the descriptions included scent. Farming is stinky! Writing the story 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!

These creative techniques are the keys to telling—and selling—great stories.


Jodi Helmer. Journalist. Author. Writing teacher. Doggie momma. Beekeeper. Veggie grower. Vintage needlework collector. Napper. Eater. Canadian. Jodi has many roles and has built a freelance career by writing about them—and a host of other things that pique her curiosity. Her work has appeared in Entrepreneur, Hemispheres, National Geographic Traveler, CNNMoney, AARP, Farm Life, Health,and others. She is the author of four books, including The Green Yearand Farm Fresh Georgia. Jodi teaches writing workshops, offers one-on-one consulting and query critiques, and speaks at journalism conferences to help other writers achieve their goals.

Immutable Laws of Writing #2: An object in motion stays in motion

An object in motion stays in motion (and an object at rest stays at rest).

Sir Isaac Newton said this first, and not about writing. Still, writing is a natural act, possibly a force of nature, and is just as subject to physics as everything else. Applied to your writing, the “object” in question is the work you are producing. (Be it understood that we’re not talking here about writing as the mere act of putting words on paper; rather, we’re talking about writing that is becoming a finished work.) Applied to a work in progress, then: your writing both requires and benefits from momentum. Let’s break out those two key bits.

Requires momentum. Any piece of writing of any substantive length—short story, novella, novel, screenplay, stage play, epic poem, etc.—cannot continue forward unless you work on it regularly. Long works have many threads and themes, schemes and schemas, and other moving parts that need to be fresh in mind while writing. This is not to say you can’t take a break from a work; breaks can be good for your writing. But just try to finish a novel that you write in fits and starts, or even one that you write regularly but overly-spaced, such as writing it only on the weekends. It’s hard enough without adding that complexity.

Benefits from momentum. When you are working on a project regularly and with momentum on your side, your writing is likely to be more efficient and perhaps also better. Consider: the longer it has been since you last worked on your project, the longer it will take to: a) bring all the components back into your head; b) have a good sense of what to write next; and c) maintain all the voices: yours, and those of your characters. When your work has momentum, you slip easily between characters, you have your story threads and themes in mind, you know what has and has not transpired, and you know—this is important—what to write next.

Robert Heinlein provided these and some other rules of writing. The emphases are his:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you start.

My Immutable Law of Writing #1 (“the words aren’t going to write themselves”) echoes RH’s first rule. My second supports his second: if you mean to finish, you must finish. And you do this by respecting (or, if you prefer, taking advantage of) the laws of physics.

Here are three pieces of practical advice for keeping momentum.

1. Write something you love. 

Don’t select a writing project because you think it’s trendy or easy to get published or will make you tons of cash. Write a story that you truly want to tell. That love will feed your momentum. You will write because you have to see how it comes out. (This will also sustain you later when you are in the eighth round of revisions and you hate the book more than you have ever hated anything.)

2. Make the forces (even the negative ones) work for you.

Fully expressed, Newton’s First Law is: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force” (italics mine).* There are throughout your non-writing world “unbalanced forces” that conspire against you and your writing, even if (usually) unintentionally, almost all of which come down to commitments that require your time: jobs, partners, children, sleep, lawns that insist on growing, and so on. How might you make these forces work in support of your writing?

Perhaps: Use lawn mowing time as thinking time, for working out plot points and other story details; car pool to work so that you can write while someone else drives; enlist your family members as co-conspirators, to help by doing research or editing; establish family creative time: while you write, others practice their instruments, or blog, or fold origami, or what have you; get up 30 minutes earlier (you won’t miss it) and write 500 words while there are no distractions; or quit something that you’ve been meaning to quit, something that takes up your time, transferring that time to your writing.

3. Allow your self occasional breaks from the project. 

Short ones. Take Sunday off, maybe, but then back to it on Monday. Can’t fight physics, might as well make it work on your behalf.

——

http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/newtlaws/Lesson-1/Newton-s-First-Law

The Grounded and the Floating

Zadie Smith reads as part of the Lenoir Rhyne Visiting Writers Series in Hickory on Thursday, March 22 at 7 pm. Free, but tickets are recommended. Call the box office at 828-328-7206.


In Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, two girls in a London neighborhood bond over what they have in common—their brown skin and a love of dance. Tracey has all the talent, and “her body could align itself with any time signature, no matter how intricate,” but her family life is more erratic, less motivated. In comparison, the unnamed narrator’s family is stable, and her mother in particular aspires to a better life. The narrator shares her love of old Hollywood musicals with Tracey, teaching them both something about not only the art of dance, but also about race and appropriation. Through this pastime we see the narrator, even as a child, holding back from full engagement, filtering the world through a more analytic detachment. Tracey, however, is all in—in her dance moves, emotional outbursts, or sexual forays in the schoolyard. Inevitably, as they enter adolescence, the two girls grow apart, but never completely sever their fraught relationship. Tracey dances in a chorus line before her life gets side-tracked, while the narrator becomes a personal assistant to a globetrotting do-gooder music celebrity.

Smith addresses the parallels between dance and writing explicitly in “Dance Lessons for Writers,” an essay in her collection Feel Free published earlier this year. From dance, Smith says, writers can learn lessons of position, attitude, rhythm and style. In both the novel and the essay, she compares Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly. Astaire is thin, elegant and aloof, never breaking into a sweat, appearing to float above the floor without effort. Kelly, on the other hand, shows his exertion and muscularity. For Smith, the two dancers exemplify the difference between “the grounded and the floating.” Gene Kelly provides a metaphor for “how the prosaic can turn poetic, if we work hard enough,” while Astaire’s movements are more literary, “poetry in motion.”

In writing workshops I’ve attended, instructors sometimes talk about “floaty-groundy” in terms of plot or characters, with a meaning that’s a little different from Smith’s. Groundy plots have a definite timeline, and their characters have clearly focused desires. A floaty character may lack identifiable goals, and a floaty plot may veer off course or meander. Think Hunger Games or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vs. Lincoln in the Bardo or even Seinfeld. For me, the floaty-groundy dichotomy has more to do with my orientation as a reader. Do I know exactly where I am in time and place? Are there sensory details that keep me tethered to world of the story? Do I know what the character is doing in the moment? If so, then I think the passage is grounded. But I also want fiction and nonfiction I read to engage with ideas, and I want characters to have rich interior lives – floatier elements. Contrast these first sentences for back-to-back chapters early in Swing Time:

“If Fred Astaire represented aristocracy, I represented the proletariat, said Gene Kelly, and by this logic Bill “Bojangles” Robinson should really have been my dancer, because Bojangles danced for the Harlem dandy, for the ghetto kid, for the sharecropper—for all the descendants of slaves.”

“A Sunday in late summer. I was on the balcony, watching a few girls from our floor skipping Double Dutch down by the bins. I heard my mother calling me.”

Floaty vs. groundy, right? For me, good writing balances the two. In revising my own writing, I often notice when something is too focused on ideas and not enough on the nitty-gritty of the world I’m building, or when I’ve written a perfectly serviceable description of a subway ride, but the character does not seem to have a thought in her head. I think of Tracey in Swing Time as the more grounded character, like Gene Kelly, more comfortable in the corporeal, in effort and emotion. The narrator, like Astaire, remains cerebral and detached, perhaps more of the mind than the body.

While Tracey the erstwhile dancer never rises above her hardscrabble life in council flats, Smith’s narrator never makes a lasting connections to anyone or anything. If our fiction is to succeed at a high level, we must allow our characters (and our work as a whole) to engage with ideas, while also firmly grounding them in the world of our imagining.


Kristin Donnalley Sherman lives in Charlotte, where she works as a writer, editor, and writing coach. She’s published both fiction and nonfiction, and is currently at work on two novels. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Barrelhouse, Silk Road, Main Street Rag and Flashquake, and she has won or been a finalist in numerous contests, including Elizabeth Simpson Smith Short Fiction, the Writers Workshop Memoirs, the Reynolds Price Fiction, River Styx Micro-fiction, and the Press 53 Open Awards for Short Short Fiction.

How to be Kind to Your Reader: Some Thoughts on George Saunders

George Saunders is big on kindness. When I read the convocation speech he gave at Syracuse University, which is now available to us in a book, Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness, which I highly recommend, it got me wondering: if you write fiction, as Saunders does beautifully, is there such a thing as being kind to your reader?

I happen to believe that there is. Kindness begins with respect, human being to human being. The writer of fiction should assume that the reader is an intellectual equal. Now, I know George Saunders knows more than I do, and when I read his Lincoln in the Bardo, I relished the challenge of keeping up. This masterpiece of a novel, about souls in a literal or figurative state of transition, tells the story—from a wildly original point of view—of Abraham Lincoln in the hours surrounding his beloved 11-year-old son Willie’s death from typhoid fever. Even though I wandered through some pages, disoriented as a blind squirrel looking for a nut, I trusted that Saunders would lead me to the light.

No one likes to be talked down to or treated with condescension. I used to tell my high-school English students, “In a three-page paper, you only need to say it one time. I know I’m old, but my memory is still intact. You don’t need to restate your thesis in the conclusion. Use that space and opportunity to tell me something related to your topic that I may not know.” Saunders taught me a lot, not only about American history, but also about tone and characterization and pacing and structure. Fiction writers are teachers, too. I choose to read writers whose ability level is far beyond mine so that I might learn from them.

Kind writers allow the love for their craft to show. When I read Saunders, I’m reminded of my ninth-grade geometry teacher who could not hide her admiration for the beauty of a geometrical proof. Her voice would change; her eyes would shine. I witness that same kind of joy in Lincoln in the Bardo. Imagine Saunders’ delight when he discovered that, in 1861, the President received a letter that read, “Mr. Abe Lincoln, you don’t Resign, we are going to put a spider in your dumpling….” (There’s more to that letter that made my mouth fall open in horror; see page 233 for details.) As I read these words a second time, I can almost see Saunders hopping out of his desk chair and jumping around like he’d won the lottery. Ali Smith is another awe-inspiring contemporary fiction writer easy to catch in the act of joy; her novel How to be Both is as inventive and challenging as Lincoln in the Bardo. I don’t know if Smith and Saunders have met, but I believe they’d become the fastest of friends.

A kind fiction writer embraces economy of language. One of the mantras of the editor and publisher should be, “No self-indulgence allowed.” A writer flaunting his flair with intricate similes or veering off on an unrelated tangent reveals a selfishness, not to mention a startling lack of awareness, that someone other than he will be reading the words. With their enlarged empathy genes, kind writers know better than anyone that there are plenty of other A+ novels their readers could have chosen instead. “Kindness, it turns out, is hard,” Saunders told the student body at Syracuse, where he teaches creative writing—also hard if done well, and worth all the precious time and emotional energy and sleepless nights when one reader says, “Those words on that page: I am pretty sure that you wrote them just for me.”


Jenny Hubbard lives in the town of her childhood (Salisbury, NC) and works at the public library where she first learned to read. Her two novels, Paper Covers Rock and And We Stay (Delacorte Press, Penguin Random House), feature teenage protagonists who come to rely on poetry as a way to order the chaos. An English teacher for seventeen years, Jenny believes she learned more from her students than they ever learned from her. She is currently under the tutelage of her rescue dog, Oliver.

The Art of Submitting

Unless the two sides of your brain are evenly divided—what writer’s is?—you probably don’t enjoy the heavily weighted left-side chore of submitting your work to magazines.

I am left-handed, so I’m even less linear than most. But believe me when I tell you that I have learned to enjoy the submission process. Why? Because I make a game of it. That’s me who gets the acceptances. It’s Caroline, my alter ego, who suffers the rejections.

So here are my suggestions for making submitting more fun:

1. I’m an ardent fan of Duotrope, a subscription-based web site for writers and artists. I read it like my wealthy cousin reads the stock market. It offers a veritable garden of markets for fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and visual art. I use it to keep track of which poems I’ve sent where, and I pore over its data, including which magazines have sent out rejections/acceptances that day.

Best of all are Duotrope’s Ten Most Lists. Ten most challenging markets for poets (fiction writers, etc.). Ten slowest to respond markets (Tin House, for one). Ten fastest to respond (Tar River). A subscription to Duotrope is the best $5 I spend each month.

2. If your goal is to publish a book, fancy publishing credits could—but won’t necessarily—make a difference to a publisher. So aim high and kick your expectations to the curb. You’ll never be published by The New Yorker or The Paris Review, if you don’t send your work to these magazines. Meanwhile, you can simultaneously submit the same poems—unless the guidelines say no—to other magazines. I know poets who send identical batches to six or more magazines at once.

3. Read the magazine’s submission guidelines before sending your poems or stories. You can do this through Duotrope or Google. Is the magazine reading now? Is it looking for poems with a particular theme? The guidelines will also tell you how many poems to send and whether they allow simultaneous submissions.

4. While you’re looking up the guidelines, read a sampling of the magazine’s published poems to see what styles the editors prefer. Many magazines, such as Agni and Kenyon Review, open their online archives to you. Likely, you’ll also find poems that will inspire your own writing.

5. Make your own calendar of when journals are reading. For instance, a top market, Threepenny Review—which responds in two or three days—began reading January 1. As did Raleigh Review. Shenandoah opens to flash fiction on January 20. Crazyhorse’s poetry contest ends January 31. Some magazines have very narrow reading windows. Virginia Quarterly reads only in July. Get your work in early, before the editors have made all their selections.

6. Enter contests. The entry fees can be stiff— $25—but if you win, you might pocket $1,000 and get a featured spot in the magazine. Two local poets, Diana Pinckney and Susan Ludvigson, have done just that, Diana with Atlanta Review and Susan with Five Points.

7. Above all, don’t let rejection get you down. Acceptances for most of us are few and far between. But a personal response from an editor is the next best thing. Savor the words. Read them again and again before the next rejection rolls in.


Dannye Romine Powell is a poet and journalist whose career at the Charlotte Observer has spanned almost 40 years. As book editor, she interviewed and wrote about James Dickey, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price and Lee Smith, among others. Her collected interviews appear in her book, Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers. Her books of poetry have twice won the Brockman-Campbell Award presented by North Carolina Poetry Society for best book by a NC poet in the preceding year. Nobody Calls Me Darling Anymore, Powell’s fourth poetry collection, was published by Press 53 in 2015. Powell’s poetry has appeared in literary journals including: Paris Review, Poetry, Field, Ploughshares, The New Republic, Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, and 32 Poems.