Express Yourself: 3 steps to better writing

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Today’s guest blogger is Jodi Helmer.  I met Jodi a few years ago, not long after she moved to North Carolina from Portland, Oregon, and we instantly hit it off.  She’s funny, a prolific writer (she has three books out and is working on book four), compassionate (when Lola went missing a few months back, she left her house at the crack of dawn to help drive around and look for our girl), has a pack of fabulous dogs, and plays broom ball.  I mean broom ball, people.  I didn’t even know what broom ball was until I met Jodi.  She also loves ice cream and will get in my car and drive absurd distances with me to go hear writers speak.  Yes, she’s rad.  And today she is sharing her steps to better writing with you.  She is also doing something incredibly cool and that is offering my blog readers a discount to her upcoming retreat which really is going to be incredible.  But you have to sign up by March 10th to get the discount.  So read her post and then shoot her an email about the retreat pronto before it sells out.  Now, for Jodi’s post:

I am a writer.

Still, there are days when I don’t write a single word. Instead, I stare at a blank computer screen, my fingers poised over the keyboard, hoping the right words will find their way onto the page.

I check my email every 30 seconds, waste time on Facebook, start typing, decide the writing is crap and hit delete, give up and read trashy magazines hoping for inspiration. Rinse, repeat.

With deadlines looming, I have no choice but to sit down and make magic happen (or at least get words on the page). Since I make a living selling words, sentences, paragraphs, the articles I write need to shine.

Over the years, I’ve found that following three simple rules makes my writing much better.

Show, don’t tell: You’ve probably heard this before but it bears repeating. The best way to draw a reader into the story is through word art, painting a picture with your words.

In an essay about the thrill of completing your first marathon, you could tell the reader, “Running a marathon is hard” or you can show them what that means: “By mile 25, my legs wobbled, my breath came in jagged gasps and sweat dripped down my back. When I heard the distant cheers of the crowd waiting at the finish line, I felt buoyed by their energy and used it to help me finish the race.”

See how drawing the reader into the story by creating scenes instead of just stating facts leads to more compelling writing?

Do a sensory scan: One of the faculty advisors I worked with in the MFA program at Queens University suggested this exercise and I’ve found it very helpful: After you finish writing a piece, go back over it and mark the places where there are sensory descriptions. Note uses of all five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste.

I recently finished several chapters of a memoir about my dream to own a farm. During my sensory scan, I realized that none of the descriptions included scent. Farming is stinky! Writing the memoir without talking about the smells on a farm meant it was missing a key ingredient.

If your sensory scan reveals that you have only described the way things look, think about ways to incorporate descriptions of the other senses.

You won’t engage all of the senses in every piece but it’s helpful to use descriptions of at least two or three.

Go on a media diet: The worst thing I can do when I’m working on an article or writing a book is read what others have written on the topic. The reason? When I read someone else’s work, their words echo in my thoughts and I lose my own voice.

When deadlines loom, I try to steer clear of the Internet, magazines and books so that I can focus on how I want to tell the story. Sometimes I crawl into bed and write longhand in a notebook.

My creative juices really flow when I’m not staring at the squiggly green line in MS Word that tells me I have a grammatical error on the page!

Whether you’re blogging, working on a novel or writing the company newsletter, I hope these tips will help improve your writing!

Do you dream of snagging a book deal or seeing your name between the covers of national magazines? Jodi Helmer is leading a writing retreat in Blowing Rock from March 23-25 designed to help you achieve your publishing dreams. Cost: $300. E-mail Jodi to register. Sign up before March 10 and mention “ROSIE” for a promotional rate of $275.

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