A wonderful writing student sent me her latest essay, which she hoped to submit to a publication. I read over the draft, and one thing stood out. While the story chronicled an event, it had no single point.
Writing Tip for Today: Personal essays or memoirs must be about one thing. Here are some tips for taking writing past chronicles and into cohesive storytelling:
Go Ahead, Barf it Out
My student was embarrassed at my critique, saying she knew there was something lacking. But I reassured her that when we draft a piece, we often don’t know exactly what we want to say. By drafting her essay as a chronicle, the essay’s point becomes easier to spot.
So go ahead and just “get it down,” as Anne Lamott preaches in Bird by Bird. Be willing to write s****y first drafts. It takes a pro to realize that the real writing occurs when you self-edit and revise. No writer should feel embarrassed that a first attempt doesn’t quite stick the landing. “We write to learn what we know,” Mary Anne Em Radmacher says.
It takes practice to give yourself permission to start out rough. The more you write the better you’ll understand your own thoughts and feelings. As long as your writing stays in your head only, it’s much more difficult to tease out the symbolism and metaphor readers love to encounter.
Refine Your Point
If you’re lucky enough to get a good critique of your draft, let it cool off for a time, and then start asking questions. What is the one thing you wish your essay to convey? Are you trying to tell too broad a story? How close or far away does the camera feel? Have you relied most on scenes or narrative?
These kinds of questions can help you reframe your essay, identify spots where you’ve veered off-course and refocus the story you tell. When you’ve answered them, go back to your draft and decide which parts of the story are mere chronicle and which actually advance the story.
By chronicle, I mean that you may have included details or scenes that happened during the event but don’t contribute to the story. Many of my first drafts begin too far back in time, adding nothing but throat-clearing warm-up to the story. Remember to start in media res, or as the action begins.
Remember to start in media res–the middle of the action.
Look for Symbolism
After you’ve added and subtracted parts of the story and done some revising, it’s time to evaluate for the symbols, metaphors and take-aways. What do you want your readers to take away from your essay? In other words, it’s fine to tell your story, but what’s in it for the readers?
Most effective story takeaways are universal truths we can all share. We all want love, acceptance and belonging. We want to learn from our mistakes and grow. We strive to be better humans.
These kinds of takeaways often belong at the penultimate paragraph of your essay, where you “turn” to your readers and let them know what you learned and how you changed. Don’t preach or orate, instead keep it as simple and short as you can. And be sure the takeaways are straightforward and few. Then, I like to go back to the story in the last bit and create a wraparound effect. Readers love a good story much more than the best chronicle.