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.