Writing to Tell Your Story: Making It Personal

January 3, 2018 § 2 Comments

zz oxleyMG_0908By Holley Oxley

In sixth grade, I sat in the classroom, reading the genetics chapter in my science textbook, and in looking at the sex-linked chromosome section, I saw my specific genetic disorder, called Turner’s Syndrome. I had been diagnosed at five, and while certain characteristics gave some indication of something going on with me, it wasn’t necessarily easy to tell I had it.  After class, I walked up to my teacher and excitedly explained that I had found this in the textbook. She was also excited and asked if I wanted to share with the class the next day. Shocked, I explained that while I understood that I was diagnosed with the disorder, I did not know enough to talk to the class, but my mom, a lab technician, might. I then agreed to talk to my mom and see if she could come to talk to the class, and off I went.

Two days later, my mom came to my class, and after reviewing what we had read in the textbook, she talked about how I specially presented. Basically, in Turner’s girls are missing part of one of their X chromosomes, which makes the body react in different ways. For me, it was droopy eyes, short stature, and other noticeable traits, as well as some spatial problems.

When it came time to ask questions, I was excited, thinking I would impress my peers both with my knowledge and in bringing in my mom.

However, the first question, “so is she a hermaphrodite or something?” instantly crashed my buzz, and it only got worse from there.

Questions like “Why does she have boobs then?” and “Does she had a period?” followed and although I answered the questions, I was cognizant of the fact that students found this weird, not cool.

However, as time went on, I began to share more and more of my experiences, and found that some of the students were interested, and at least understood me more. As someone who was sick a lot, on top of moving several times during elementary and middle school, I realized that in being absent a lot, people tended to fill in their own story about who I was and in sharing more, I got to create an understanding of who I was.

Furthermore, in overcoming the awkward questions posed in class, I began to feel comfortable in sharing big pieces of myself, and as I began to write, was not as self-conscious as others because I had already shared a lot verbally.

Writing to me, is a place to work out yourself and share these pieces as you figure them out. Your morals, ethics, and understanding of the world shine through, and that is a big responsibility for a writer. Furthermore, as a person in a group that is not well represented in media, including books and TV, I feel that it is important to share my experience as often as I can so that people understand that although some people with my disorder struggle, just as many thrive. I may be more than my genetic disorder, but to me, finding a personal understanding in something is important, because the eleven-year-old girl looking at the textbook will always be excited to be represented, even if only in a small section of text.


Holley Oxley is a graduate student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, currently working on her Master’s in English-Language Studies. She has been published in Fine Lines, a regional journal for students, and enjoys watching TV with her cat, Dahlia and traveling, which inspires her writing.

Maintaining Self-Esteem and Motivation in a Year of Rejection

December 18, 2017 § 22 Comments

ReneOstberg authorpicBy René Ostberg

The last day of November, I received my umpteenth rejection of 2017. I say umpteenth because I haven’t been keeping strict count. All I can say for sure is that my rejection count is in the double digits and well out of the teens, and includes multiple rejections for three short stories, a handful of poems, two residencies, and the odd pitch.

As for my acceptances of 2017…for those, I have been keeping close count, and the grand total is easy to figure, hard to face. Zero. Thus, my 2017 record so far: zero acceptances, umpteen rejections. With less than a month in the year to go, I’m looking at a year of full rejection for me as a writer.

As a person – as in daughter, cat mom, coworker, and all that – my year has fared better. I got a promotion, bought my first home. But it can be hard to appreciate these achievements amidst all the rejections trickling into my inbox month after month. If this year of writing rejection has taught me anything about myself, it’s how much I identify as a writer, as opposed to a person (or daughter or cat mom, etc) who happens to write, and how much my self-esteem is affected by my writing success and progress, or lack of it.

Rejection may be an inevitable part of the writer’s life, but dwindling self-esteem is good for no one’s creative ambitions. As my rejections pile up, I’ve begun to approach my laptop with dread, opening up my works in progress and email inbox every day with a sense of shame, like a boxer facing himself in the mirror after a brutal second round knockout beating. I’m a slow writer as it is, someone who struggles with writing anxiety and an unbridled daydreaming habit. Months of rejection has slowed me down even more, resulting in more unfinished pieces than I’d like to admit to and too much time wasted fretting over one sentence here, repeatedly revising a few words there, doubting myself at every moment, with every letter, typing and deleting, typing and deleting and doubting and doubting.

Often I think I should just quit, rip the writer’s badge off the vest of my identity, go back to watching TV in the evenings or try getting out more, rather than isolating myself nightly with my laptop and words and creative ambitions.

So for 2018, the question is: Do I quit or keep writing, keep trying, despite all the rejection?

Lately, I’ve been googling topics like how other writers handle rejection, how to stay motivated, how to build self-esteem. The last topic usually just gets me a hodgepodge of generic self-care tips, stuff like “Take a bubble bath” or “Make a list of your strong points and carry it in your pocket for when you’re feeling unsure of yourself” or “Treat yourself to your favorite ice cream.” These are great tips, to be sure – I honestly live by tips like these – but they don’t quite speak to the rejected writer’s dilemma. Instead, an idea I’ve started to find most intriguing, and potentially helpful, is the “aim for 100 rejections” advice. I’ve encountered the idea on writers’ blogs before, but never gave it much consideration. For a long time, I understood this tactic as a kind of numbers game – the more times you submit, the more likelihood you’ll get accepted eventually, even as you load up on rejections. The 100 rejections idea always reminded me of a dating strategy a friend of mine once shared with me. After a painful breakup, someone advised my friend to join a dating site and respond to every woman’s ad on the site. Every. Single. One. Regardless of matchability. “Just hit ‘em all up and you’re bound to get a few dates. And even if none of the dates lead to a relationship or anything, the point is you’ll be dating, not just sitting around the house obsessing about the past like a loser. You know, putting yourself out there.”

Well, as someone who’s been on dating sites and at parties and bars where I and every other woman within striking range have been on the receiving end of this “hit ‘em all up” strategy, and as a lit journal editor and reader who’s seen the result of writers clearly randomly submitting their work to any and everywhere regardless of fit or “matchability,” I can’t say I consider this advice all that wise. But after the year I’ve been having, I find myself reinterpreting the point of this strategy.

Rejection, like nearly anything else, can be turned on its head, reexamined, reshaped, and ultimately reclaimed as a badge of honor, a source of pride and inspiration. Though submitting isn’t the same thing as writing, it is a form of motivation, a pronounced exercise in self-belief. Moreover, earning 100 rejections takes some hustle, and hustle takes energy, and energy begets energy that can be converted into another go at this story or that poem, into words on the page. Which is a writer’s reason for being more than anything else – the foundation for her identity. In that regard, rejection and the goal of racking them up – whether you set your goal for 100 or umpteen or a year’s worth – are just the cement that help you strengthen your foundation. If you’re getting rejected, you’re not just sitting around your laptop obsessing about your failure like a loser. Rejection means you’re trying and it also means you’re writing. You know, putting yourself out there.

I can’t say I’ll be working for 100 rejections in 2018. Umpteen was more than enough. But maybe in the coming year, I’ll be able to put an actual number on “umpteen,” repeat it with pride, and answer it with something other than self-doubt, something like a sweet, at long last acceptance or two.

René Ostberg is a native of Chicago. Her writing has appeared at Cease, Cows, Literary Orphans, The Masters Review blog, Drunk Monkeys, Thank You For Swallowing, Rose Red Review, We Said Go Travel, the Encyclopedia Britannica blog, and many other places. Most recently, she served a one-year tenure as an editor for Tiny Donkey. Her website is www.reneostberg.com.

‘Tis the Season to Write: A Teacher’s Tale

December 13, 2017 § 7 Comments

shawnaBy Shawna Kenney

After my first book was published, I visited a writing class as an invited author. Following my visit, the professor asked why I wasn’t an instructor myself. His question sparked my imagination. I was a cubicle jockey in a mind-numbing corporate job by day, a freelance writer in the wee hours, and a touring author on weekends and holidays. Teaching seemed like it would be a better fit for my writing life.

Plus, get paid to talk about stories all day? Yes, please.

I went and earned my MFA in a program with pedagogy classes and a 3-year TA-ship. I took my piece of paper and taught American Literature to Marines at Camp Lejeune, photojournalism to teenagers in a juvenile detention center, English composition to immigrant students in community colleges, developmental writing to women in a Catholic college. As an adjunct, sometimes I taught six classes at three different schools at a time, which left little time or energy for writing. Some of my colleagues taught even more. I was lucky to publish two pieces per year with that schedule. Finally I landed the classes of my dreams—memoir and personal essay, which I’ve taught online and in person now for 10 years, rarely more than one or two at a time, leaving much room for writing productivity. Between semesters I am most active, sending pitches, revising essays, and finishing books. I come back to classes armed with stories from the front—samples of editorial rounds for them to see, links to new work, and shares of disappointing rejection.

Semesters have given rhythm to my writing life. Between reading early drafts of other people’s stories, I scratch down ideas for my own to be pursued over the summer or on holiday break. They simmer in my journal and my brain until the metaphorical school bell rings. Then when the last grade is entered, I clean off my desk, file the handouts away, reorganize my books, bust out a good tea, and sit down to write. By then the words are retching up out of my gut like a looming flu virus, eager to infest the page. Of course sometimes there are also fits and starts, the proverbial “shitty first drafts,” and there’s some searching around in the dark for what it was I wanted to say, exactly. When I get stuck, I take on an editing project or take a walk. Remembering that this is my window for self-care, I get myself to yoga three times a week, schedule a massage, make more time for friends. Sometimes I brush up by taking a writing class (last summer it was sketch comedy). Inevitably, I do get words down on the page, partly because there is a syllabus in the distance calling my name.

Yogi Bhajan says, “If you want to learn about something, read it. If you want to understand something, do it. If you want to master something, teach it.” I don’t know that I have mastered anything, but between semesters, I am indeed protecting my inner life, as Lan Samantha Chang advises in her Lit Hub essay. I am teaching myself that this ebb and flow of giving and receiving words works for me.

Shawna Kenney is the author of I Was a Teenage Dominatrix, editor of the anthology Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers  and co-author of Live at the Safari Club: A History of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Playboy, Ms., and Creative Nonfiction, among others.

From Scraps to Stories

December 7, 2017 § 30 Comments

A guest post by Anne McGrath

Memories are slippery to hold. Many of what I suspect were my most brilliant story ideas were written on bits of paper too small to keep track of. The tiny notes ended up in the wash, returned in library books, or illegible.

Not any more.

For the past two years I’ve used a deceptively simple system to collect the seeds for stories. My ideas are in a central, easy-to-access place, and the method is enjoyable, helps me pull up things I’d otherwise forget, and is much easier than keeping a detailed journal. I was introduced to the system by novelist Matthew Dicks when I attended his storytelling workshop. As we made up stories on the spot, it was abundantly clear that Matt, a twenty-eight-time Moth StorySLAM winner, had an endless supply of tales to tell. We all wanted to know his secret and he gave it to us. In his TEDx talk, Matt calls his system Homework for Life.

Here’s how it works:

At the end of every day, after I brush my teeth, no matter where I am or how tired I feel, I reflect on the day, asking myself “What happened that was interesting?” It doesn’t have to be anything shocking or fantastic. Matt says many of the best stories are small, “Infinitesimal, really. If it speaks to something about your heart, reflects your experience as a human being, or offers some fundamental truth about who you are.”

Sometimes I list a description of an image or movie I saw, a conversation I overheard, or a personal interaction, typing a kernel of the idea beside the date, in an Excel spreadsheet. You could write it in a notebook, an app like Things (iOS only) or Evernote (all platforms), or Word document, but the spreadsheet comes with lines and boxes and works well for me. It only takes a moment. Most of the notes wouldn’t make sense to anyone else:

  • hawk died
  • what if I never had kids
  • the art of napping
  • no longer know people in People mag
  • when dad’s work bench turned messy
  • birds – make them come to you
  • wearing uniforms
  • computer passwords
  • phantom pony tail

It might not look like much, but this list thrills me. I could turn any one of these ideas into an essay right now. More often than not I don’t so much write about these topics as from them; they stir up sensory memories in the same way music or photos might. When I read these small details they remind me of the big details and it all comes flooding back.

This system has helped me to some of my best writing. Keeping a daily log, I began spotting stories all over the place and living more in the moment, through my senses, because I know I will be reflecting back on events at the end of the day. Memorable lines I would have forgotten, like what the technician said to me when I was in the MRI machine that time, or events that would usually go unnoticed, like the ants moving en masse in Costa Rica, are now stories.

But here’s the most incredible thing I’ve discovered: this habit of collecting ideas has changed something in my mind and how I am in the world. It has instilled in me a sense of patience, made me see with wonder, be more willing to try new things, and look with fresh, curious eyes. The process of writing has become more important than the outcome for me and I feel fortunate every day that I am able to create something. I have stumbled upon things in New York City I might have missed if I was less attentive – an exhibit of Nabokov’s butterflies at the public library, a baby squirrel fallen from its nest in Central Park, the homeless woman outside the subway station who had been a Jackie Gleason dancer. Visceral stories are floating all around us, waiting to be brought to life.


Anne McGrath lives in the Hudson Valley with her adorable husband, sons, and dogs. Her work has appeared in Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, Chapman University’s Dirt Cakes, The Caterpillar Magazine, and the One Hundred Voices anthology. She is an assistant contest editor at Narrative Magazine and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Anne’s short story, “Performing with the Dead,” was featured on NPR’s Listener’s Essay segment and she has participated in story slams at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s former house in Massachusetts, and the Noah Webster House in Connecticut.

Remediation: Creative Revision in the Comp Classroom

December 6, 2017 § 3 Comments

StacyMurison14_005SmallThe second installment of a series of blog essays by Stacy Murison discussing her use of creative nonfiction prompts and approaches in her first-year composition classes.

As we near the end of the semester, my thoughts turn from creation to revision as our composition students complete one last assignment: a Remediation project. This concept was borrowed from rhetoric studies, where students are asked to transform a piece of existing writing into a new medium such as a video essay, or to consider using an existing medium (Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat) to re-imagine their essay in a new format. Remediation in this case is an opportunity for revision of both form and words.

A challenge always is that students can’t imagine returning to work already submitted and graded and sometimes hope this means that they will get a better grade on their first project. When I explain that remediation is an opportunity to imagine their work in a different way, there’s some hesitation. And, by hesitation, I mean groaning.  Like most of us, it’s also difficult initially to imagine exactly how we can revise and improve on our work. For me, I fall in love with the arrangement and emotion of a piece and usually have to step back from an essay for several weeks, or ask a friend to critique it, in order to see clearly revision opportunities. For students, there is some confusion (even this late in the semester) between surface-level editing and a more global revision approach, coupled with the feeling of wanting to move forward with projects, not backward.

I have also heard from students that they don’t often get to write creatively or infuse their own ideas and personality in their work at the college level. I leverage this feeling into a combination of three writing exercises to help students understand the revision process. These exercises are focused on how they tell their own personal stories, which leads into discussions later on how they can use these techniques to revise their essays for the Remediation project.

The first exercise encourages students to write a brief movie trailer about a day in their life. I use YouTube throughout the semester to show students commercials and movie trailers coupled with writing and group activities that help them identify narrative elements, audiences, and appeal techniques. After consuming this type of media all semester, they are primed to write their own trailer. The trailer I show as an example for this exercise is for Jerry Seinfeld’s movie Comedians (2002) and plays with typical movie tropes for action films; part of the humor is that the film is not an action film.

Students can use a “Mad Libs” template I provide or write their own, borrowing the elements from the Comedians trailer or other trailers they’ve seen throughout the semester. I provide index cards so they can write their trailers and set a timer for 5 – 7 minutes. Is their own day-in-a-life story a rom-com? An action film? A comedy? I give examples of a blind date gone wrong, a roommate who chews too loudly, or the pain of waking up for an 8 a.m. writing class. The audience is their classmates and me, who by this time know each other pretty well.

The template looks something like this:


After they write their trailers on index cards, I shuffle the cards and pass them to another classmate to read. Some students insert dialog and notes on sound effects or cues for the type of music we could expect to hear as part of their written trailer for their reader. Readers will sometimes read in “voice-over” voice. We then guess who wrote the trailer and talk about the identifying elements used and why it might have been easy or difficult to guess the author. This becomes a discussion of their personal writing styles which they have developed over the semester. The exercise introduces a new aspect to consider as they revise a project—who they are in relation to the piece and, because they know their audience, ideas for how to infuse their personality and voice in a new medium.

Students in one of my sections this semester encouraged me to run this exercise as a “true” Mad Libs, where they start writing their story as a trailer and a classmate finishes it. I think this is an excellent idea—it might demonstrate exactly how well the audience knows them, or how to be even more specific in their word choices for an intended audience.

The next exercise involves writing a personal “warning label.” With another round of index cards and five minutes of writing time, I ask them to write a warning label they would wear all day to help others understand how to interact with them. I keep this exercise to 15 words or less—t-shirt slogan-length—and show them some t-shirt images from on-line catalogs such as Signals and Think Geek. We again share these as a class and try to guess who the author is. This exercise helps students distill aspects of themselves and their ideas into a few words—a seemingly impossible task made possible.

The final exercise is a further distillation—the Six-Word Memoir. I have used this writing exercise a few different ways. It works well for the Remediation project because it demonstrates the power of a few well-chosen words. I have also used it for one-minute papers (or “exit tickets”) to check in and see how students are doing in the course overall or with a specific project. For additional fun on the last day of class, I ask the students to write a new six-word memoir that encompasses their journey as a writer throughout the semester.

Re-imagining and repackaging their life stories through the exercises help students access new ideas for potential revision opportunities for their previous projects. Through these exercises, students develop a strong sense of voice, tone, audience, and word choice delivered in active and fun ways that are centered on who they are and how they present themselves. Now they are ready to revisit their previous projects in order to transform their essays into a new medium and with well-crafted and chosen words.

So, what do these projects look like? I had a student reimagine her review of a local pizza restaurant (she thought she could make a better pizza at home) as a Tasty video using her iPhone and posting the video to Facebook. She used the Tasty conventions of an ingredient list and fast-and slow-motion video capture of the pizza making. Another student loved reality television shows and reimagined her review project (a camping trip gone wrong) into a short YouTube video with her roommates as the actors. She followed specific show conventions (Keeping Up with the Kardashians) such as a staged fight and fast-motion photography between scenes. Other students have captured their work in Instagram formats creating new hashtags and writing micro-essays for their photos. Still others use Twitter for a series of connected tweets (or threads) about a specific topic. One student explored folk music for his I-Search project and wrote original lyrics and melody, which he performed in class on his acoustic guitar. Another took his I-Search project on depression and wrote lyrics and a melody, which he recorded to SoundCloud and shared with the class. This type of revision through the Remediation project gives students an opportunity to use platforms they are familiar with and use regularly, as well as showcase their talents. Even students who tell me they are not “creative” have made videos, written hip-hop lyrics, performed comedy routines, or shared photographs on VSCO, Instagram, or Tumblr. As part of the Remediation, students present their work to the class and talk about the choices they made during the revision process.

The results often surprise and humble me, and I think even surprise the students, especially when they hear all of the positive feedback from their classmates during their presentations. Through this entire process, revision is viewed less as an odious task and more as an opportunity for re-invention and re-imagination for both the students themselves and the work they have produced through Remediation.


Additional Resource  

Tarsa, Becca. Remediation. Digital Rhetoric Collaborative. 25 April 2014. Accessed 1 November 2017 http://www.digitalrhetoriccollaborative.org/2014/04/25/digital-lessons-remediation/


** Very special thanks to students Carly, Ethan, and Dmitrius for sharing your work with us.


Stacy Murison received her MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University where she now teaches composition. Her work can be found in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, River Teeth, Hobart, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others.

In You We Trust

November 28, 2017 § 10 Comments

Picture of Meryl Streep as a fashion magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada

…maybe just stop talking.

We’re settled into our seats, ready to watch Meryl Streep perform in the new musical adaptation of Gone Girl (“Gone!”). We’re leafing through Playbill, counting up Oscar nominations, when suddenly Ms. Streep steps out in front of the curtain to address the audience.

“Hi everyone, I’m really excited you’re here for this show, based on the book about a woman who fakes her own disappearance and sets her husband up for a murder rap. I hope you’ll especially enjoy the scene where I write all the journal entries at the same time with different pens.”

Wait, what?

Or she says, “In rehearsals for this show, I worked on my high E notes with a noted vocal coach at Julliard, maybe you’ve heard of him?”

Um, no.

We’re already here, Meryl. We’re ready to watch. We trust you to deliver. Just let us watch you–don’t tell us the story you’re about to tell us. And if it turns out the show isn’t to our taste, your pre-show explanation won’t fix that.

Reading submissions is a lot like being in that audience. Around the Brevity Podcast house, we’re settling in with pages of Submittable entries for the One-Minute Memoir episode. Each essay is the curtain going up on a show we’ve never seen before, enjoying how much humor, sadness, quirkiness, reflection, action, and adventure can be packed into under 150 words, sometimes many fewer than that. There are pieces totally unique in content, and others with universal situations but new approaches. Every author has something truly, beautifully theirs…and some of them tell us about it in advance.

Cover letters everywhere range from a single sentence of author bio to a full page of credits, context, and background information, and every variation in between. Sometimes, authors get nervous that the editors won’t get it. Or they’re really excited about their time working with a prestigious teacher. Maybe they feel like they don’t have enough publication credits, and explaining the story fills up that space. Or there’s a backstory that’s totally amazing.

These things don’t suck, but they’re not helping your submission. I don’t actively read the cover letter until I’ve read the essay–though I end up seeing some of what Submittable displays before clicking through to the submitted piece. Most editors want to come to your words as readers do: a fresh impression on the page. They don’t get to sit down and explain to subscribers what they meant when they picked that piece, why they think it’s great. As authors, we rarely get to discuss why or how we came to write something unless we’re talking about it with our friends or being interviewed. But that’s bonus material for the true fans, not a base to start from with first-time readers. Don’t give away the game.

For example, when submitting your terrific flash essay about knitting with a women’s circle in Guangzhou:

This essay focuses on the time I gave birth in China surrounded by my knitting class.

I wanted to tell the stories of the amazing grandmothers I met while doing handicrafts in China. They all had children who had emigrated, and I saw how conflicted they felt.


For the purposes of submission, one sentence maximum about the circumstances directly affecting the writing (not the story).

I wrote this during my missionary work in China.

I’m a professional knitting teacher.

Will detailing parts of your story get you rejected out of hand? Not by us. In the long run, this isn’t a huge issue. For most journals, it doesn’t really matter what you write in that space–at this point in the process, they’re interested in the story and the writing. Explaining neither fixes nor destroys a submission. So don’t sweat it if you’ve fallen into this category before. Just stop doing it.

Reading your story is more powerful than reading about your story. Let us be surprised and delighted and astounded–the way we want our audience to be when they get to read your work.


Edited to add: Aerogramme offers some more terrific cover letter advice from Tahoma Review Prose Editor Yi Shun Lai.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her travel-adventure-writing newsletter can show up twice monthly in your inbox, if that’s not telling too much.

Stop Making Sense

November 21, 2017 § 26 Comments

Have we got an offer for you!

Black and white picture of David Byrne dancing in a boxy oversized suit from the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense

How did I get here?

Would you like to improve your writing craft today? By, say, 10%?

This doesn’t apply to everyone of course, but after editing essays and books and posts for the Brevity blog, for experienced writers and new writers and everyone in between, I’ve noticed a lot of repetition.

Not from book to book, although I see that. Not even from paragraph to paragraph, although I see that too.

Within the same sentence.

Sometimes it’s telling as well as showing:

He looked like an old man with his grey hair and gnarled hands.

Tell it once:

His hands were gnarled.

Better yet, show it in an action:

He ran a gnarled hand through his grey hair.

He picked at the tablecloth with a gnarled hand.

Sometimes it’s showing the same thing multiple times:

Jane patted my shoulder, gently massaging my arm to calm me down as she said, “Shhh, there, there.”

Show it once:

Jane rubbed my shoulder. “Shh, there, there.”

(Using an action as a dialogue tag is a great way to avoid repeating information.)

Sometimes it’s a festive riot of showing, telling, and over-explaining:

I picked up my phone and texted my boyfriend:

Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts

Although the only thing I spelled correctly was his name, when I sent him the text I thought it was very clear.

 Pare it down:

I texted my boyfriend:

Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts

I thought it was very clear.

Texting implies the phone is in the narrator’s hand. There’s comedy in the juxtaposition of the garbled text and “I thought it was very clear.”

As writers, we worry we’re not good enough to get our point across in fewer words. That our audience won’t “get it.” As memoirists, this hits even closer to home—what if someone reads my book and they don’t understand me? What if I don’t sound logical, or reasonable? What if I don’t make sense?

But spelling everything out distances the reader. Instead of offering the whole picture, spread out the pieces. Putting together clues to understand behavior, noticing dialogue and actions that seemingly contradict each other, guessing a character’s thoughts from their gestures—all these moments of detective work engage the reader more fully in the story. Don’t lay the evidence out neatly with an explanation—let them meet you on the page to investigate the scene of the crime.

This also applies to “filtering”:

I looked at James as he stomped over.

I knew his balled-up fists meant trouble, and I felt terrified.

I heard him shout my name.

“Looked,” “felt,” and “heard,” all remind the reader, “There’s a narrator seeing and feeling and hearing these things. You’re reading a book.”

James stomped over, his fists ready for trouble. “Caroline!”

Removing the filtering lets the reader imagine themselves in the narrator’s shoes. It’s subtle, but it puts the reader a tiny bit more in the emotion of the scene. It lets them feel for us, instead of telling them what we felt.

If you’re having a wildly creative day, by all means go generate new material. But if you’re having a day where you should do some writing…and you’ll feel better if you do…but it’s all kind of looking like a slog—start slogging. Pick some pages and use the Find tool to spot “looked” “felt” “heard” “thought” and variations on those verbs. Ask of each one, “Do I really need you here?” Scan your sentences for repetitions and over-explaining. Ask in each place, “Can I make the reader work a little harder?”

It’s not our job to make everything make sense. Our job is to lay out enticing clues and let the reader solve the puzzle with us. To immerse them in our world–but learning, feeling, and making their own sense.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Sign up for her bimonthly travel and writing newsletter here.

Photo credit: Cinecom Int’/Island Alive/REX/Shutterstock (5871592c)

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