Because I signed up for the nonfiction track of the Laity Lodge writers retreat, I was required to submit in advance ten pages of “spiritual nonfiction.”
The workshop format meant that each person would receive a copy of every other participant’s ten-page submission to evaluate and critique.
I can’t reveal details of our sessions, because in order to build trust and encourage honesty within our group, Lauren Winner forbid us to talk or write—especially to blog—about what happened during workshop.
All I can say is that I received valuable ideas to incorporate into my work. I was grateful for the honest input.
But I would like to share a helpful writing tip that Lauren brought up. She said that when revising our writing, ask:
“What work is X doing for this piece?”
This question could be asked about anything from dialogue to description to a long introduction. Phrasing it this way helps the author gain some degree of objectivity when evaluating her work.
Take these hypothetical examples:
- “What is the dialogue between my mom and me doing for this piece?”
- “What is this long introduction doing for this piece?”
- “What is the brand name I’m referencing doing for this piece?”
Dialogue: Does the interaction in a particular piece break up long expository passages and add some life, or does it distract? Do colloquialisms in a person’s speaking style reveal something important? Ask questions like these when playing around with dialogue in nonfiction.
Long introductions: Occasionally a lengthy introduction provides critical context for whatever follows. More often, however, long intros simply delay the true beginning of a story, so it’s important to ask what a lead or introduction is doing for a piece. I find in my own work that the answer to that question is usually: nothing. In those instances, I suck it up and cut my first paragraph. The piece is almost always better.
Brand names: Lauren pointed out that brand name references reveal something. We need to ask what a reference to Whole Foods or Uggs, for example, says to the reader about a character or narrator. It’s important for us, as writers, to take the trouble to evaluate if a specific reference adds to the piece or if it simple confuses the reader.
This process takes time, but allows each line, each reference, and each phrase in each section to contribute something meaningful to our work.
Photo by Silgeo, available through Flickr under a Creative Commons license.
Cassandra Frear says
My writing requires a more extensive surgery. Almost every time, I need to cut the first third of the piece. Usually, I’ve really worked on the beginning, too.
But I just roll my eyes heavenward, grit my teeth, and do it.
Okay, maybe I make a cup of coffee first.
Me, too, Cassandra. I can see it better in others’ work; it’s harder to see in my own.
I had to swig some tea to cope with my own cuts. I hacked off a huge swath from the middle of this one to let it just be a simple thought about editing. I had some stuff in there about the workshop.
I did save it, just in case I can recycle it later. But it’s probably just a chunk I needed to stay in motion, just as my wordy beginnings are usually there just to get me started.
Megan Willome says
Good tips! Since I also edit, it’s so much easier to see this stuff in someone else’s work than in my own. But I am finding that in my typical 500-word rant that gets a piece started, only about 50 words will find their way into my final article.
Yes, I agree–I think you, Cassandra and I are three peas in a pod.
this is great advice. and now I am thinking about that long introduction to my novel that Stephen Lawhead critiqued…
Not all long introductions are wrong–some, as I said, create necessary context! I’m sure that yours was critical to the story, Laura! 🙂
Hazel I. Moon says
Great tips, now to put them into practice. I was disappointed not to be offered your 10 pages of “spiritual nonfiction.” Smile.
Well, Hazel…one little section of the 10 pages of “spiritual nonfiction” showed up at The High Calling last week:
Hazel I. Moon says
I enjoyed that story! Sounded like a true event to me!
It certainly was…the egg…the lamp…the cracking…the tears.
That was me…just me and my duck egg.
Michelle DeRusha says
Okay, first of all, the fact that you took a writers’ seminar with Lauren Winner. Sigh. I. Love. Her. I have read everything she’s written.
Secondly, this advice is really good. I need to think about that suggestion to cut the first paragraph. Yes. I can see how that would work in a lot of my writing.
And thirdly, Ann, you help me become a much better writer — you are such an astute editor. I think you’ve even suggested I cut the first graph on occasion or two. How ’bout that?! 🙂
Lauren was almost in the background–the group member spoke up and offered their thoughts and she said less and less but…I’m not supposed to talk about anything else! She’s working on a new book, by the way, so you have something to look forward to!
Sometimes I need that first paragraph just to kick start my brain. When I realize that it served a good and noble purpose, I thank it kindly for its help and then cut-and-paste it into a Word document…just in case I think I might reuse it someday (I never do). It eases the pain a bit.
Finally, you are an amazing writer and I’ve been honored to work with you. Have I suggested you slice it away? I can’t remember! All I know is that you’ve created some great stuff for High Calling…and I hope you will many times in the months to come!
Sandra Heska King says
Such helpful advice. But it sounds like you’re asking me to use more than my little clippers. Like maybe a hatchet. It sounds so painful. And bloody.
Those who already write “tight” only need a nail file! 🙂
But it always makes me flinch to watch the dust fly or the clippings drop.
Gordon Atkinson says
It can be a painful thing to ask that question. Sometimes I have a paragraph or a phrase that I really love. But in truth, the piece grew in another direction and my beloved paragraph is now a distraction. Or I gave more detail to this one element that I gave to three others and it needs to be more of a balance.
What I sometimes do is take that one paragraph and put it into a file I have of “cuttings,” as I call them. Small bits of writing. There it sits. Sometimes I read through them. And on occasion one of them takes root and becomes its own thing.
Mostly not though. Still, it’s easier on the soul than deleting them.
Marcus Goodyear says
For me, cutting is easy, but sometimes I cut so much I lose heart for creating more. I know that days and days of work are going to end up on the floor someday, waiting for a broom to sweep them into the trash.
My mom and dad worked as journalists in the days of paste-up. When they wrote up and sent off their stories, they expected their words to be snipped off–they watched their hard work literally drop to the floor to be swept up!
I guess they got used to it and held their writing loosely.
I’m not sure it’s the same with more artistic efforts.
I’m glad you shared these tips. I wanted to be a fly on the wall in all of the workshops!
This makes me think about my grandmother “cutting her eyes.” Remember that? I think the choice we made was right, and maybe fiction is a better place for colloquialisms such as those.
Today I wrote something and inserted a brand, and I deleted it and then put it back. I wanted to be sure that it meant something there.
Being at that retreat challenged me to pay attention to the craft and not post stuff just for the sake of saying that I posted something. Thanks for the way you handle our words when we send them your way…for keeping us “tight.”
Marcus Goodyear says
I agree. Would have liked to attend this one and the poetry one. On the other hand, it was really a joy to be there at all, with all of my online friends.
It was indeed a joy and privilege to be there, all together, Marcus. Thank you (and Mr. Butt) for making it possible!
I think you’re right, Deidra–I didn’t have Lauren’s “X” measurement when we talked about the “cutting her eyes” phrase, but now you and I could use it to decide if it works. Sometimes it does work, as you discovered with your brand name experiment.
It’s a privilege to work with you, Deidra…I know I have one sitting in my in-box waiting to be pondered. (Sorry for the delay.)
Dena Dyer says
Ann, it’s hard to not talk and talk about what we’ve experienced, isn’t it? It was really amazing. I’m grateful. Unspeakably grateful…for the whole experience, scorpions and all. 🙂
Everyone’s writing was so real and honest–and different. I learned a lot by listening to everyone else. In fact, I learned so much and got such encouragement on my ten pages that I did it! I signed up for the Glen Workshop next year with Lauren.
Scares me to death, but excites me, too!
Congratulations, Dena! That’s fantastic news that you are taking such a bold and tangible step forward.
Your comment leaves me wondering if I’m going on and on about it…a little too much? 🙂