Five Ways to Energize Writings
When it comes to editing, my favorite quote is from @artplotnik about how we help writers by making the “fire” show through their smoke. Yet when you come right down to it, an editor can only work with what’s on the page. It’s still up to writers to learn how to polish early content while getting down the most essential moments and ideas.
Here are some simple, and more involved, tips for adding volume to your content in ways that will be meaningful to readers:
Through sentence structure:
This sounds obvious, but even experienced writers fall into habits such as using the same sentence structure over and over. Using subject-verb-object rather than backing into sentences is generally better – particularly true with using a sentence starter like “There is/There are,” except intermittently. But any sentence pattern can get overused. Consider, for instance, whether you’d continue reading this article if I started every sentence before this one with “When X happens, Y happens,” rather than just using that for the lead two sentences.
The third sentence in paragraph one, for instance, launches right in to a prepositional phrase after the subject-verb-object. And the start to paragraph two above has an interrupter between the object of the verb (“tips”) and the adjective that describes it. A good general guide for reviewing ways to structure and add variety to sentences and paragraphs is The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing. Changing sentence lengths, which is among the guide’s suggestions, also energizes writings.
Through word variation:
Part of the focus is selecting words carefully, with the range of resources available to help with this covered in a previous post. This includes varying up certain word choices that could get old if reused a lot, as having some word variety adds energy to writings. Notice how I used “yet” to start the second sentence of this piece, as an example, and then switched to another coordinating conjunction, “but,” in the starting sentence of this section instead. Another important focus is taking the time to find spot-on verb choices to get across the point you want to make, and to take the sound of words into consideration, which affects the emotional impact of a piece.
Also, consider when it’s appropriate to vary a noun that’s common throughout a piece. Say you were writing a feature story about the impact of warmer fall weather on the flowering time of Texas native plants, as an example. To switch up on using “fall” a lot, you could throw in “autumn” or “autumnal” every third or fourth paragraph as an easily recognizable alternative option. However, if you’re a non-fiction author explaining complex concepts in a How To book, it becomes more important to stick with the tried-and-true nouns and such to ensure readers can follow the thread of what you’re sharing.
Imbue Scenes with Color
Through actions and descriptions:
You’ve likely heard the rule, “show, don’t tell” before; it’s a keeper because, for instance, knowing that Herb looks blankly at the sky while lying helps readers go beyond understanding that he’s lying to “seeing” his conflicted emotions when it happens. Displaying such particularities about the way a character acts also gives a unique window into their reality in a way that a narrated recap simply wouldn’t provide. The same goal of specificity is true for describing important objects at a murder scene, or the shade of yellow that fills the morning sky on fall days in a Midwestern town when that color helps set the tone of a scene.
Through emotional portrayals:
Tapping into the full range of emotions of a character is also important for bringing them alive on the page, whether you’re trying to get readers to like that character, hate them, or consider them crazy. An example of displaying varied emotions comes in the character of Sophie in Sophie’s Choice, during the heaviness of recalling the concentration camp moments related to her children’s deaths, or the over-the-top moments as she escapes those memories in a conflicted, chaotic present. It’s also good as a writer to understand the difference between characters’ emotions, and their feelings, with the latter providing more nuances, as it relates to what story someone tells themself about their action (such as a parent feeling guilty about a child’s death). Literary agent Donald Maass (@DonMaass) has an excellent Writer’s Digest piece on evoking more from readers through emotions and feelings.
For those writing personal essays or memoir, a trick I’ve discovered to unearthing emotional pay dirt is paying attention to what time of day or place makes you connect most fully with your emotions, and using those times/places to do things like timed writings that tap into your ability to recall key emotional or visual details.
Add Your Linguistic Stamp
A great way to learn to energize writings is to read content you wouldn’t normally like, such as business articles in the newspaper, and see which writers manage to get you to keep reading. When I’ve done that, one of the main things I’ve noticed in magazine features is that the author often comes up with personalized turns of phrase every four paragraphs or so. The timing isn’t the key, but rather that you spend some mental muscle figuring out how the morning sky filtering through trees feels to you, what about your mom’s favorite Polish saying reminds you of her so much, and all the other things that give you a special understanding of the world, and therefore, an opportunity to guide readers into a place of deeper understanding of themselves.
The same attention to detail applies to a fiction author doing their darndest to show a more subtle range of behaviors from key characters than they could choose to use (e.g., instead of having Aunt Martha sigh every time they stand up due to arthritic joints, perhaps show her moving the front porch rocker into a sunnier spot on a cloudy fall morning). In addition, you can have characters occasionally react differently than readers might initially expect, which adds depth to the character—and thus, to the story.
Barbra A. Rodriguez