In week three, we’ll learn how to pinpoint the “aha!” moment in a draft, and scan existing material for hidden kernels that are worthy of expansion. We’ll also begin to think about structure — and play with these moments like pieces in a puzzle.
If you’d like, jump to a section in this workshop:
Over the past two weeks, you’ve worked on two aspects of the writing process: finding a unique story angle, and reeling your readers in, right from the opening line. By today, hopefully you’ve found your own spin on a topic you’re writing about, and decided how to craft an introduction to a post-in-progress.
This week, we’ll dive deeper into our writing and learn to extract key moments in our pieces: to pluck out moments that deserve more attention and find bits that are worthy of scenes. You may not realize it, but you do have material to mine, from the kernels buried in your drafts, to the nearly ripe ideas in your free-writes, to even the published posts you aren’t satisfied with (c’mon, if you’re like me, you have a bunch of these, too).
Contrary to what your inner perfectionist tells you, this material is not trash. As I mentioned in a post about Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, much of the writing process involves not writing, but simply observing and being; thinking about how to translate our life experiences onto paper; and then rewriting.
Being a disciplined writer isn’t just about creating a finished product, either. It’s about the steps behind the scenes, in between our published posts, and reflecting on ideas and themes that appear in our writing again and again, and then improving what we’ve written.
Revisiting your drafts
You have material to mine, from the kernels buried in your drafts to the nearly ripe ideas in your free-writes.
Before you roll up your sleeves and work on your own writing, let’s consider this example:
A blogger named Dee writes a personal post about the challenges of living with her autistic brother, Sam. The post reads like a diary entry: a braindump of thoughts with no regard for structure, or even a clear beginning, middle, and end. Dee starts a number of sentences with phrases like Last week, Sam decided to… and That year was better, because… and Today, I’m upset because mom and dad said…, but there’s not really a chronological approach.
In the end, Dee’s post is a jumble of thoughts and feelings, jumping around in time.
The most heartfelt, poignant part of Dee’s post involves music, when she recounts a guitar lesson Sam had given her when they were teens. It’s a significant moment, representative of their relationship, but the moment is buried near the end of the post, described in just a few lines. Many readers may not reach this part — they’ve likely stopped reading, leaving this beautiful moment undiscovered.
I read posts like Dee’s every day, where the most resonant writing — arguably the “best part” — is buried somewhere in the prose. (Think back to last week’s workshop, when Michelle talked about how not to write an introduction: burying the lede and starting from the very beginning. The idea is similar here: sometimes the meat and heart of a post is misplaced.)
Let’s suppose Dee’s post was in response to a free-write exercise from Writing 101. Is this material still usable? Can it act as a springboard for something more? Absolutely. I’ll bet you, too, have posts like this in your archives, published or unpublished. Oftentimes, if we’re not happy with a post after taking the first stab at writing it, we trash it. We forget about it. I encourage you to view “practice posts” and writing you’ve finished or forgotten as eternal works-in-progress; sometimes all it takes is fresher eyes and a more mature perspective to get started on them again.
Art is never finished, only abandoned.
— (Often attributed to) Leonardo da Vinci
The lapse between first draft and revision may be short: a week, or even a day. Other times, the simmering period takes a while — months, even years. In “On Not Being Able to Write It,” a lovely post Krista shared in week one, Wendy Rawlings says she’s still waiting, after thirteen years, for the right time to tackle her memoir about a fling with an Irishman.
Writing, and rewriting, takes time.
This week: Select a post that you’d like to experiment with. It can be a post you’ve already been workshopping, or something different.
For this workshop, let’s return to the piece you’ve been working on the past two weeks. Or, dive into your archives, from your published posts, to the drafts in your dashboard, to the free-writes we asked you to do in Writing 101 (if you participated in the course). Select anything you’d like to revise and experiment with.
Ideally, it’s a post that “needs work” — that you feel is unfinished or to which you didn’t give enough attention. We’ll try to improve it in this workshop by looking for the most significant moment within it, which will act as the anchor of your story. If you don’t have an appropriate post to work with, the tips below are still helpful in general, as you grow as a writer over time.
Mining your material: finding the key moment
Section at a glance — tips to find your key moment:
- Present a grand idea by thinking small
- Consider universal themes, describe human emotions
- Take a cue from the art of filmmaking
- Tear your work apart (literally)
When you revisit a piece, how do you pinpoint the “aha!” moment — the true heart of your post that you’ll build upon? How do you scan your own material with editor’s eyes?
Here are four techniques to consider as you revisit your post. Feel free to dive in and absorb them all at once, or focus on one each day of this week:
1) Present a grand idea by thinking small
In the past, I’ve read a number of friends’ personal statements as part of their applications to graduate programs. Interestingly, no matter their field of study or essay topic, my feedback to each has been the same:
Great overview! But you need to zoom in.
You know that part where you mention a transformative moment in passing? [I’ve circled a sentence.] This shows your passion. Expand on it. Everything else you’ve written will fall into place.
A friend applying to an MBA program talked about how he wanted to effect change in a global society. In his epic backstory, he described many life experiences, but never dug beneath the surface. The essay showed his range, but at the end, I was unimpressed.
Think small. Be specific.
I said: Tell me a specific story about one internship abroad. Recount a single conversation with someone that changed your worldview. Show me you, as a human being.
Likewise, a colleague applying to a residency for women artists spent 2,000 words listing her hurdles and accomplishments, yet I came away not reading anything memorable.
I suggested: Describe something — a childhood encounter, a challenging exchange with a professor, a moment of enlightenment — I can picture. Make yourself a character: one that I can follow, that I can imagine when I close my eyes.
Revisit Krista’s advice on your story angle in week one: what details in your life can help to illustrate your unique story? What is distinct about you — or the subject you’re writing about — and how can you show that quality to a stranger?
Scan your piece and look out for these moments in your writing that you may have glossed over. Print out your draft and read it with a pen, circling phrases that jump out at you — that might be more meaningful than you first thought.
2) Consider universal themes, describe human emotions
As you scan your draft for usable material, think also about the types of stories people identify with, no matter their life path or background. Personal and emotional takes on universal topics like loss, death, friendship, family, and love always garner responses because readers can relate, even if their experience is different from yours.
I am of the mind that emotions should be shown, not told.
— Matt Salesses, A Month of Revision
Let’s say you’ve written a piece of memoir about being estranged from your mother for twenty years, or you’ve drafted a post about finding your calling as a chef in Italy. If you scan your material but aren’t sure what you’re looking for, or what it’s missing, think about books you’ve read, or films you’ve watched, that have moved you.
Are there moments, like the ones in your favorite stories, that you can tease out?
For example, we’ve all witnessed — or experienced — awkward, painful phone conversations. Can you retell an exchange between you and your mother and show the strain on your relationship in a way others will understand?
Your readers have likely had interesting meals abroad — can you recount that dining experience in Rome and show how life-changing it was?
Scan your post — your life or subject — with a magnifying glass.
Or, let’s return to the example of Dee: she starts with an unfocused post about her brother Sam, but scans it with a magnifying glass and plucks out a single encounter — one memorable guitar lesson — which she’ll use to show the beauty of and unique communication in their relationship.
We all lead different lives, of course. While no two stories are identical, we can look to the work of others to see how they tackle themes around grief and pain, love and hope, and more.
If you’d like, share an excerpt of something you’re working on in the Commons and ask participants if they can relate to your subject, and if not, have suggestions for how to build upon it.
3) Take a cue from the art of filmmaking
To identify moments that you can expand into scenes, and to help you think more cinematically, let’s also consider the craft of screenwriting. The Script Lab introduces five key plot moments in a movie script, some of which are worth mentioning:
The inciting incident: the first incidence of conflict, which creates the main problem of the story. The inciting incident can happen after the first sequence, or even within the first few minutes. (In “Narrative First,” Jim Hull compiles examples in popular films like Star Wars and The Matrix.)
The lock-in: the point at the end of act one — roughly thirty pages or minutes into a film — at which the protagonist is locked into the central conflict of the story. He or she moves into act two with an objective.
Scan your piece for a cinematic moment.
Consider the plot points in your favorite movies. What incident sets off a chain of events? What motivates a character to act a certain way? Which scenes have made you cry, or cover your eyes, or laugh, or shake you to the core?
Scan your own piece for a cinematic moment. While it doesn’t have to center around a problem that needs to be solved, do remember that conflict drives a story, and this moment should include some kind of action or exchange. Think about it: how could you write a scene where nothing happens?
For more inspiration, head to the Commons and share your favorite movie moments of all time. What’s so moving about them? If you’re trying to visualize a big moment in your own writing, toss your ideas into the ring — your words might conjure images in the minds of other participants. And that’s what brainstorming and workshopping is all about.
4) Tear your work apart — literally
In “A Month of Revision,” Matt Salesses offers tips on the rewriting process. Consider point number five:
Cut up your story.
When I edited a manuscript in my MFA program, I cut problematic chapters into sections and paragraphs, laid these slips of paper out on the floor, and moved them around like puzzle pieces. This visual and tactile process is invaluable when experimenting with structure (which we’ll discuss below), and you can try it with an individual post, too.
Print your post and cut it into parts.
Print your post and cut it into parts, so each part equals an idea or main point (or another “unit” you’d like to use). Splitting your post into parts makes it easier to see what you have — and what’s missing.
Study each part, isolated from the rest of the piece. You’re forced to read your writing in a new way, and you may think of ideas you’ve haven’t before. Also, look for parts that lack descriptive details — these might hold hidden moments and missed opportunities.
Ultimately, there is no fool-proof formula. After exploring a particular piece, you might find that the story just isn’t ready. Let it sit. Move on to another piece. A big part of the writing process involves figuring out which ideas are ripe.
I hope these techniques have shown you how to read and reconsider existing material in new ways, and that you’ve pinpointed a key moment in the post you’re working on!
An introduction to structure
The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with. . . . To some extent, the structure of a composition dictates itself, and to some extent it does not. Where you have a free hand, you can make interesting choices.
— John McPhee, “Structure”
So, let’s say you discovered the key moment in your post. Now what?
John McPhee’s insightful New Yorker piece on structure is an interesting look at a master writer’s process on the organization of a piece of writing. You should ponder the best structure for your work, no matter your genre or style. Consider those classic five paragraphs, with a thesis at the end of the introduction, in a high school composition essay. The nonlinear plot in your sci-fi short story. Or the wandering narrative of your music memoir, in which the chapters of your life are organized by songs.
When I was growing up, lessons on structure were rather boring. We learned how to create outlines using roman numbers, and it felt like an unglamorous step in the writing process. Make sure each body paragraph has three supporting points, my teacher would say. We hated the task and thought it was a waste of time.
Years later, I want to thank all the teachers who forced me to outline my essays.
When you begin to organize a piece, you probably don’t know what you’ve got. You lay out your ingredients on a table, as McPhee writes, and move them around: your introduction, some backstory, perhaps a paragraph of technical information, a section on a specific person, a great quote from an interviewee, your key moment, and so on. As Krista and Michelle discussed in weeks one and two, you’ve put your own spin on a topic, and have attracted your readers with your hook and question. Likewise, you’ll decide where to place your other components, like the key moment you’ll use to anchor the post.
But how do you decide the order of things?
Think back to Dee’s piece, which currently reads as a series of musings, with no sense of chronology. Where might she insert her guitar lesson scene? Could it fit at the beginning, as a way to introduce her relationship with Sam, and frame the rest of her thoughts? Or does it make more sense to write about their childhood first, and then craft the guitar lesson scene?
In the next workshop, Ben will talk more about scene placement and development. This week, let’s plant the seed: think about the different parts of a post you have — from your hook, to your key moment, to all of your supporting details. Consider these questions:
- A longform post on the TV show Homeland in which sections focus on themes (politics, infidelity, bipolar disorder).
- A short story on friendship where the parts focus on characters (versus a linear progression in time).
- A personal essay of disparate (unrelated) threads held together by what they have in common: you!
- Is your story best told chronologically, and arranged in the order that things happened or came to be?
- Could you consider a nonlinear approach, in which your post might have sections that jump back and forth in time?
- Could you disregard time altogether and create parts that are more thematic?
Richard Gilbert, who began writing his memoir, Shepherd, in our graduate program at Goucher College, shares his thoughts on the topic:
We live our lives chronologically, of course, so it’s an easy structure for readers to grasp. But human memory doesn’t work that way — it’s a jumble from which images arise — and neither does our understanding.
Structuring a post involves more than simply outlining an introduction, body, and conclusion; you should think about the most effective, dramatic way to tell a story, and consider how the placement of information might affect your reader emotionally, too.
Establishing a notetaking system
In addition to traditional numbered or bullet-point outlines, or the cutting-and-moving method of paper mentioned above, try doodles and diagrams, as McPhee did with his 1973 article, “Travels of Georgia.” Or charts and bubbles, or different-colored Post-its or index cards.
Get a chalkboard or whiteboard for your writing, which you can set up next to your workspace. Use a journal specifically for outlining your posts. Find inspiration in the handwritten notes of famous authors, like Gay Talese’s now-famous outline for his story, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” as shared by The Paris Review:
Not all posts need be outlined, and many writers don’t bother at all. But if you’re learning to organize your thoughts, and want to plan your revision before sitting down to type, experimenting with an outline — of any format — is a great exercise. (Feel free to share images of your outlines in the Commons as well!)
And that’s it for now. So, spend some time this week revisiting a previous post (or multiple posts), using these techniques to pinpoint your moments. Use the Commons to share existing material that you’d like to workshop, toss around ideas, and ask specific questions. Feel free to also chat about structure, and ways to organize your thoughts and notes.