Hack Your Essay

July 25, 2017 § 12 Comments


Your problem’s in the third paragraph. And let’s tighten that closing while you’re here.

Sometimes writing is a glorious creative flow, images tumbling out in perfect sequence and in the exact right words to express them. Other times, it’s a slog.

I know this isn’t quite working but I don’t know why.

When it happened, the experience wasn’t this…blah.

Where the heck do I start the next draft?

One door in to a difficult draft is to focus on the technical. Word choices, parts of speech, sentence lengths, paragraph constructions. Our medium is words, and just as an oil painting is unlike a watercolor or a graphic design, the mechanics of language can shape our story, sometimes even leading the creative process rather than reflecting it.

Over at Poetry Foundation, Carmen Giménez Smith has Twenty-Two Poem Hacks for addressing a poem technically. Most of the twenty-two are also terrific tools for working on an essay or short story. Some choice bits:

1. Lose that first stanza: The first stanza is often the path to a poem, and it provides scaffolding for us, but our reader doesn’t need it as much as we do. Read the poem without the first stanza, and see how much is missing. Consider how quickly the first stanza situates the reader in the poem.

Replace stanza with “paragraph.” Sometimes even with “page.” A novelist I’m editing heard an agent say, “Many manuscripts, the story actually begins 50 pages in. Cut the first 50 and see where you are.” The novelist (bravely) did, and the book immediately leapt to life, starting the reader in the action. From those first pages, only a few pieces of information were still needed, and the writer wove them in later.

8. Assess your use of cognitive handles: Language like “I feel,” “I remember,” “I think,” etc. often points to the obvious work of cognition. We rarely need them, and more importantly, they offset the potential for a dynamic subject-predicate engagement. Remove them whenever possible, then move the subsequent language into the spotlight.

This language is also called “filtering,” and filtering reminds the reader, “You are not this narrator. The narrator is a separate person who did something that happened somewhere/somewhen else.”

I looked across the room at Bob vs. Bob stood across the room.

By removing the filters, the reader sees through the eyes of the character, steps into their shoes. The reader can be immersed in the story and feel their own reactions to events.

13. Clauses and fragments: Fragments can serve us well in a poem, but if we have a conventional clause (subject-predicate) divided by a period, we should ask why break up that engagement with energy and momentum.

In prose, this energy interruption is also seen in long sentences full of prepositional phrases. Prepositions often denote location in space or time, and every time a new phrase shows up, the reader’s sense of location jumps. A rough-draft sentence:

She went into the store on the corner and looked on the shelf for the familiar red packet she’d eaten from so long ago at her mother’s table in the blue house where she’d felt so alone, as alone as she felt this morning at her own table.

It’s not just that this sentence is overly long (long can be great when it’s a choice). It’s that it contains 10 prepositional phrases, each of which takes the reader to a different time, physical location, or state of being.

And beautifully, Giménez Smith points out the technical work of vulnerability:

21. Revise toward strangeness: The poem should make you uncomfortable and it should challenge you. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” –Robert Frost

It’s not an accident that our essays become raw and riveting and compelling. It’s the writer receiving that moment of You can’t tell that or But what if everyone finds out or Maybe I’m the only one who feels like this and writing into it instead of away from it.

Check out all Twenty-Two Poem Hacks here–and dive into that next draft, OK?

__________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference September 8-10 in Lancaster PA, teaching self-editing and meeting with authors about their work.

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