When I write, I try to answer these five questions

The more I write the more I think I should know how to write, but I don’t.

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The analytical mind in me demands there be a process for all this amateur effort. Insists that all these hours should amount to something more than another cold start, starting from the beginning, staring at a blank page. What I’ve realized recently, coming off of the longest piece I’ve ever completed, is that my intent is always to balance the tension between two dueling impulses: to say something real, and to not be boring.

The impulse to speak is assumed. Many of us want to encapsulate a meaningful experience in a way that makes it portable, shareable, and lasting. But the moment you open your mouth the clock till boredom begins.

We all know it.

Time is precious. I can always feel the reader about to move on.

With those competing desires primed, I preload my mind with threads of my story’s intent and then I dive in, typing furiously, sprinting toward the next sentence in hopes that it’ll be there by the time my fingers catch up.

I move quickly in hopes that I won’t get caught by the fatal grip of blase prose. Seeking to find the correct words to form a thought, I don’t fear a blank mind nearly as much as I’m terrified by the unsure brain’s temptation to rely on banal text. Seeking truth, I fear the worst outcome would be gratuitous exclamation or tired tropes.

That sprint toward meaning, while avoiding vague abstraction, has led to repeatedly ask myself five questions:

1. What do I want to say?

Though I’m fully aware that I won’t really know what I mean until the words have been formed, it can never hurt to take stock of what you’ve got before you begin. As if emptying out your pockets in search of loose change, it helps to begin with some awareness of where you stand. All the directionless threads of thoughts that have been bouncing about in my mind deserve a shot at inclusion, no matter how rough or crude. They may actually deserve more attention if they’re ragged since all gems start looking like just rocks.

2. What am I actually trying to say?

Once there are ideas down, with a sense of momentum, there’s a chance I know where I’m headed unless I don’t. Like the one time I sat shotgun on a road trip only to realize an hour after departure that the driver had headed south instead of north, it’s possible to write quite a bit and end up further from your intended destination. This is fine in theory, as exploration, but not if aiming for an outcome. Assuming the ideas are coherent, that there are structural beams around which to shape the frame of the story, then I can move toward refinement.

3. What am I afraid to say?

It’s in the moment when I’m most tempted to feel secure with the story that I try to let go. With the stated intent of saying something meaningful without inducing boredom, at this point, it’s time to recheck the foundation of the piece’s emotional charge in order to make sure that it’s true. Oftentimes when I’m struggling with a sentence I find that it’s because the phrasing is vague, the emotions are insincere, or I’m still protecting myself from admitting what I truly mean. Not every thought must delve into emotional depths, but it does a disservice to everyone if I ask for their attention and then obscure my true intent.

4. What can I remove?

Having written toward a vaguely defined destination, then attempted to reorient once the true direction was better known, and then zeroed in on a specific location, it’s time to retrace a more direct route for readers. It can be painful to strip away meaning that is correct but less consequential because after all, the entire endeavor of writing is to illuminate layers of truth. Who’s to say which is illustrative and which is irrelevant?

I am.

Approaching the pursuit with the awareness that readers have a shortage of attention, it’s on the writer (and any editor they can find) to prune back the elements that shroud sunlight from shining on the core intent of the piece.

A shorter story told more clearly benefits everyone. It’s alright to write your way there the long way as long as you circle back to direct others down a less strenuous route.

5. What does it sound like?

Though some misspellings, grammatical errors, and broken sentence structures feel inevitable, they’re reduced by taking the time to speak the written words. If it trips up my tongue it’ll likely flummox the reader’s attention. Hearing my own sentences out loud can alternate rapidly between inspiring and cringeworthy, but it’s the simplest way to see what I actually have.

With the stated intent not to bore others, I attempt to read aloud while listening for when my own attention begins looking toward the door. Since if I even slightly begin to lose myself, I have to imagine others will have departed long before.

With that process run, those five questions asked, it’s nearly time to post. If scheduling allows I can occasionally gain perspective on my own words by setting them aside for some time, but at some point, you’ve just gotta hit Publish.

I realize these techniques are neither new nor novel, but I felt compelled to jot them down.

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Thanks for reading!


2:19 Marathoner. Writer about running.

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