1. Avoid adverbial garbage. Let your words speak. Don’t tell people what they’re supposed to see in your art. Don’t make your readers do your job for you. If you have to tell them, you haven’t done a good enough job with the writing itself.
For example, the man you met on the bus wasn’t “extremely attractive.” He was handsome. Or chiseled. Or had a smile like Denzel Washington. And the movie you saw last night wasn’t “amazingly dull.” It was laborious. Or uninspiring. Or made you want to gouge your eyes out with a spork.
See the difference? Adverbs are for amateurs. And the more you use them, the more your writing resembles a studio audience with one of those big, glowing sign that reads, “Laughter!” or “Applause.” Is your writing doing too much work?
2. Break your writing down into speakable units. Compactness is a virtue. Scannability is a talent. And the kind of writing readers love the MOST is flowing, breathable and easy to speak. That’s why it’s always helpful to read your work aloud during editing, sculpting and incubation periods.
It’s amazing how many sentences – that look great on paper – are unspeakable when articulated orally. So, this process helps you try out, switch up and rework your sentences into a more rhythmic, melodious and musical style. “You have to sing your words to your audience,” suggested George Carlin during a 2007 interview with Jon Stewart. How speakable is your writing?
3. Crucify yourself on your pen. As Tolstoy suggested, “Write only with your pen dipped in your own blood.” God I love that quote. And in fact, that’s where I got my official definition of writing: “Sitting down, slicing open a vein and bleeding your truth all over the page.”
I promise that if you show up each day with that attitude, every move you make will be right. Your work won’t always be brilliant, but it will be true. And that’s all readers ask for. That you tell them the truth. Remember: You can’t spell Pentecost without “pen.” What are you crucifying?
4. Don’t be repetitive, but DO say things over and over again. Never underestimate the power of repetition. Pinpointing your thesis and repeatedly punching readers in the face with it is the only way they’re going to be able to stop mid-read and succinctly answer the question from the guy sitting next to them on the plane,
“So, what’s that book about?” he asks. “Oh, this one?” you say, “Approachability.” “Ooh … sounds interesting,” he replies, “I should buy a copy for my asshole boss!”
Bam. One word. Done. A precise answer as the product of persistent repetition. That’s exactly the type of conversation you want people to have about your work.
So, just remember: Your readers’ memories are MORONS, and they need pampering. Saying things over and over again doesn’t just work – it wakes people up. It also keeps your writing consistent. What are you punching your readers in the face with?
5. Escape structure. Give yourself permission to write and accumulate and share a bunch of totally random thoughts. They don’t have to make sense. They don’t have to be organized. They don’t have to be brilliant. They just have to be captured, for now.
You can use them later. You can stretch and grow and expand them when they’re ready. And you can go back and add dimensions TO and improve ON those ideas as you round out your learning. For now, learn to escape structure and flirt with impatience, ambiguity, illogicality, irrationality and insanity. What structures do you need to give yourself permission to escape?
6. Everything is `grist for the mill. “Grist” is grain that has been separated from its chaff in preparation for grinding into flour. Julia Cameron used this term in The Artist’s Way, and I always appreciated her image as the perfect metaphor for writing.
See, as a writer, you use everything that happens to you. Everyone you meet. Everybody you observe. Every emotion you allow yourself to have. Every emotion you experience other people having. It’s all fair game. It’s all prey. It’s all up for grabs. And, the best part about grist – it can become just about anything: Oatmeal. Tortillas. Cookies. Cakes. Pretzels. Dee-licious.
So, think of all the delicious things your ideas, stories and experiences could bake into: Books. Articles. Poems. Songs. Screenplays. Training manuals. Man. I’m getting hungry just thinking about. Maybe it’s time for a Lucky Charms break. What grist are you grinding into your mill?
7. Go beyond what is comfortable in your writing. Constantly ask the question, “What do I risk when presenting this material?” Living your Truth? Being found out? Alienating people? Offending closed-minded Christians? Getting a rise out of your mom? Being booed?
If your answer to that risky question is “Nothing,” or “Not much,” I’d you’re not (yet) uncomfortable enough to write. Are you “sticking yourself out there” on the page?
8. Hang around words and hear what they have to say. The short version of my theory on Content Management is, “Gather always, use eventually and delete never.” That’s because writing is a patience-based sport. It might take years before your idea becomes something bigger.
That’s why you have to keep those ideas in front of your face regularly and listen to what they have to say. Because you can’t decide what you’re going to write. You can only listen carefully for what wants to be written. What are your words telling you?
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That Guy with the Nametag
Author, Speaker, Coach, Entrepreneur
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