Your Stories And Good Writing

By: Tracy Jackson   Image By: Coming To Grips

I’m with fantasy writer Philip Pullman, “after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”  Despite a full-to-overflowing and sometimes hectic life, I make room for stories.  I crave stories.  I’m unabashed about it, I’ll take narratives just about any way I can get them: telephone conversations, best books, posts, the news, letters, songs (rap if I have to), assignments I give to students, ticker or semi-encrypted notes doodled on yellow-lined paper. Oh, and just so you know, age is no restrictor.  Some of the best stories of late come from my five-year-old son Jonah; he tells tales that enthrall.  Recently, he worried that a houseguest of ours was going “to leave his world” because she had left the house.  (Insert automatic and slightly repressed chuckle here.)   In that moment I thought about how lucky I am that he shares his stories, they let me stay in his enchanting world even when I’m not physically with him. Stories are like oxygen to me—they breathe life into the familiar. 

Obviously, you revere stories as much as I do; after all, you chronicle your days.  When storytelling becomes your profession as much or more than your hobby, you have to flex your expertise.  So let’s talk about good writing since it’s inextricably intertwined with good storytelling.  Here are a few writing fundamentals to be mindful of when crafting your blog.  First, remember that literary economy is key.  Use the fewest words possible in your prose.  Composition theorist Peter Elbow preaches economy of words when he reminds all writers, “to avoid excess words.” Minify is a good writing motto.

My second tip is to search for the right word like you search for the prize in a cereal box.  It requires some digging and tilting, maybe even a disgruntled grrr.  Don’t be afraid wear your dictionary out.  Explore synonyms. Understanding the roots of words helps too.  The right word requires recognizing connotations.  Think about the emotional implications and associations that a word has, e.g., “stocky” connotes something different than “chunky” does—they’re not necessarily interchangeable words.  “Strapping” has a very different feeling to it; yet, all those words will be hooked together as synonymous.  Twain figured it out, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

My last tip for today is one of my writing favorites: use vigorous verbs. Writing expert John Trimble underscores the fact that the verb, for better or for worse, functions as the power center of each sentence.  If you choose genuinely fresh and active verbs, your sentences will have snap.  Your prose will come alive, I promise.  Conversely, if your verbs are dull and diffident, your sentences will sag.  (And let’s be honest, no one aspires to sagging, do they?) In The Careful Writer, Theodore Bernstein speculates that The Declaration of Independence was strikingly powerful because it employed so many active, unequivocal verbs.  “[King George III] has plundered our seas, ravished our Coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” Those verbs make me want to tote a musket around and join a cause!  There’s indisputable power in a well-selected verb.   

Feel free to continue to sharpen the saw by taking Polly Scott’s Better Writing in Six Steps at atly.comYou’ll be glad you did.  Oh, and please know that because you are storytellers, we’d love your input on our blog.  Write for us for a day, won’t you?  We have good shelter, our bellies are full and we’re obviously in good company—it’s the stories we need most right now.  Spin us a yarn, and we’ll lend you a smile!

This post was written and sponsored by atly.