Your Entrance Into Better Writing


As a writing instructor, I obviously have some faith that writing can be taught. I believe there are practical strategies that lead to better writing. As usual, my explanation has an architecture metaphor.

That’s right. The architecture-obsessed writer strikes again. This time I’m not alone. The great poet and author of craft books, Kim Addonizio, also sees a comparison between our beloved writing and the fascinating field of architecture.

In the fifth chapter of her book, Ordinary Genius, Addonizio tells us to, “Imagine a sentence as a hall with a series of doors. Each door is a possible way to use what you’ve already written to generate new material.”

In the chapter, Addonizio describes six different doors, methods of expanding a sentence to generate more material for a poem.

Maybe because I’ve recently written a couple of poems about hallways and doors, this chapter really excites me. Of the oodles of exercises included in the book, this was one of the first ones I tried.

I began with a sentence that I actually adapted from another sentence in Ordinary Genius. With that line, I stood at one end of my poetic hallway and proceeded blindly to the other end, opening every door I could, for a while getting kind of lost, not knowing if I’d ever get to the other end of this hallway turned maze.

That feeling of being lost, of not knowing where each door would lead, actually made the process exhilarating. The constraint of always working within the same sentence was like a tether keeping me connected to the spine of the poem, the main axis. That freed me to go to the remotest of language, ideas, images, and abstractions. I could stay as long as I wanted, rearrange things, blow out walls, gaze out the window with no worry about time.

So, I encourage you to take a sentence that you love and open it up, rearrange it, expand it, repeat words or clauses or phrases, exchange words, mutate it, put in line breaks, and whatever else you can think of. You may not see better writing in an instant, but it will get better.

I also urge you to get your hands on a copy of the book. It could change your writing life.

Clearing out the Cliches


You’ll notice that the world is full of cliches, but your writing shouldn’t be.

So why do these cliches persist and how can we stop them?

Here’s a basic idea.

When given a writing prompt, my students often scribble a sentence or two and drop their pens in exasperation or boredom or victory.

That’s one of my greatest pet peeves as a teacher. I want students to keep writing, to keep digging and exploring, to keep revising their thoughts and their articulation.

Chapter 3 of the latest featured book is titled, “first thought, worst thought.” The book is Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio. It’s a book about the craft of poetry specifically, but many of its truths apply to all writing.

One such truth is that what we initially think of or first put on paper is, “invariably banal, clichéd, or boring.”

Addonizio explains that our minds are filled with “received thoughts,” other people’s words and ideas, clichés, slogans, jingles, commercials, knock-knock jokes, sitcoms, school rules, famous lines from popular movies, automated telephone prompts, banners, theme songs, the ABC’s, and you know the rest.

These are the things we usually think and write first. They’re like reflexes. Our minds have been conditioned to these “universal” cues of communication.

BUT… if we do the work of clearing our minds of the clutter, of not settling for those initial thoughts or scribbles, we can push our way into some pretty creative stuff.

I go back to my students. One reason so much writing is uninteresting and unoriginal is because we fail to keep writing. We under-write. One of my earliest creative writing teachers said we should write several pages more than what we actually planned on keeping. That way we’d be able to find worthy material amid all crap.

Addonizio gives several ideas for pushing past those initial drafts filled with trite thoughts. One that speaks to the idea of overwriting is “sufficient thought.” You should actually think rigorously about what you write to “achieve a poem that really explores and develops your subject.”

If writing is thinking on paper, you should write more. That’s what I’d tell my students.

By cluttering up pages and pages with words and phrases, we actually unclutter our minds of all those clichés. Hopefully… if we’re putting sufficient thought on paper.

To end with the words of the poet and author whose book inspired this post:

“It’s about letting go of the conditioned mind–all of those received thoughts–and tuning in to some level of thinking that’s deeper than our usual concerns.”

Write Like an Architect: Description by Design | Write to Done

I’m finishing up the next feature book, Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio. I’ll have lots to share soon. In the meantime, go over and read my post on Write to Done.

Imagine that your story or blog is a house.

Can you picture it?

What does it look like? How does it feel to be inside?

Is it still just a wooden frame hastily nailed together and barely standing? Or a gaudy eyesore with so much ornamentation that you can’t see the actual building?

If your writing resembles the first house, it’s probably lacking the finishing touches of description.

Click the link to read more: Write Like an Architect: Description by Design | Write to Done.

3 Strategies to Advance Your Writing Career


You’ve had the dream, now let’s talk about your writing career in a practical way.

I’m a firm believer that you are more likely to achieve your goals and achieve them faster when you have a plan. Some writers say that it was luck, that they just wrote, and the opportunities came to them. I don’t buy it.

Successful people have some type of goal or plan. It may not be a 60 page, detailed breakdown of every minute and every dollar you plan to spend for the next year, but there should be some kind of goal, plan, direction, or mission guiding you.

Dara Girard would say the same. She’s presented a few ideas for how to develop a strategy. I’ve picked three of my faves.

Find a role model.

Study a living writer whose writing and career you admire. Research their career history and the steps of their journey from the beginning to where they currently are. If you can contact them via email, phone, or social media, that’s even better. You can ask specific questions to help you develop your own game plan.

Gather industry news.

Girard suggests small doses information. This is a good idea because, as discussed earlier, a flood of information may have you spinning your wheels without actually getting you anywhere. I think small doses are good because they give you concrete, actionable steps to take in a particular direction.

Work towards your mission statement. Do something every day to make it real.

This requires that you actually write a mission statement. Now you’ll be able to clearly identify a direction for your writing career. This strategy also requires daily action. Even if you identify where you want to go in your mission statement, you must take actions to get there. I suggest writing a general mission statement (a few sentences or a paragraph), and then listing intermediate steps you would have to take to get there, like a map.

It’s Friday, and I’ll be bringing you insight from another book next week. But you don’t have to stop learning from Dara Girard. You can get a copy of her book and savor many more lessons.