I do not consider myself to be a great writer. I can be technically sloppy at times and often rely too much on the reader’s ability to sort out intended sarcasm and humor rather than make it obvious.
But I have studied many great writers over the years and tried to adapt their techniques into my own work. I have tried to be a solid storyteller more than a writer.
During that time I have come across one fundamental truth: Writing is simple. It is just another form of interpersonal communication. A conversation.
You will often hear the term “write in a conversational tone.” While that is a start, it also has to be interesting.
Which leads us to the critical question: What makes a conversation interesting?
That is where we will begin and end. Hopefully this will provide some insight that will help you write better, communicate better and tell better stories. Feel free to share this with anyone you think would benefit from reading it.
Actual conversations are a lost art. We spend so much time texting and emailing, we rarely actually talk anymore. It has become rote. Routine. Much of our writing is the same.
I truly disliked one of my former editors at the Chronicle, but I did learn one valuable lesson (well, two — the first was try not to be a complete jerk and belittle everyone). He spelled out what he called the A.P.E. method. It was a simple acronym for the three types of conversations we have: Analytical, Practical, Emotional.
When I was teaching, I did an entire class on this. The base thought is there are three keys to an interesting story. Analytical speaks for itself; “what did you think of the debate last night?” “Is Brock Osweiler a decent quarterback?” Then we answer those questions with analysis and educated opinion. Practical is also quite simple. “How do I get to the restaurant?” “Do you know who won the game last night?”
Emotional is the hardest, which is kind of what spurred this post thanks to a nice reaction to my Phi Slama Jama writeup. When are we at our most emotional state? Generally funerals and weddings. The best conversations we have tend to come at the times we are most happy or upset.
Too many of our conversations drift into the wind. “How was your day?” “Good. Yours?” We feel like we have to fill gaps with nonsense. It is like the great line in Fight Club:
When people think you’re dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just…
– instead of just waiting for their turn to speak?
Much of our lives is spent waiting for our turn to speak. We pay little attention. We tune people out. Why? Because the conversations lack any aspect of A.P.E. Can you even remember the last time you had a great conversation?
When I was teaching, I would encourage people to have real conversations with their friends or significant others. Really listen to what they have to say. Notice when they use dead words (“like, “you know,” etc.). Ask yourself why do you find this person interesting? Is what they are saying interesting or am I being polite? Then ask why would they find you interesting. Then really listen to yourself when talking.
By doing this exercise, you will start spotting the flaws in your own game. Maybe you are saying “you know,” too much. Maybe you aren’t saying anything at all. Maybe you are just filling in gaps.
Simply eliminating the dead words will make you a better communicator. But taking it to the next level is just as simple.
(I did seminars on this for many years and most people found it to be very helpful. It also ruined a few relationships when people found out their significant others really were not that interesting, but oh well).
Start by asking yourself, “is what I am saying interesting to anyone but me?”
If your words actually mean something, then your conversation will mean something as well. So narrowing your focus and getting to the point faster will help immensely.
We all have that relative who rambles on endlessly telling a story and you tune them out because they include every detail in painstakingly chronological order. Or worse yet, the one person in a business meeting who loves to hear themselves talk and goes on and on, throwing around buzz words like “synergy.” (You might even be that person).
They will usually talk for 30 minutes and say nothing. Or say something that could have been done in five.
If you eliminate that and focus on the elements that are actually important, you can become a better communicator and a much more interesting person.
The simplest way to do that? Put pictures in people’s heads. Tell them a story with words that gives them an image so you don’t have to use as many words yourself.
Here is an exercise: Close your eyes and picture a horse. What color do you see? Roughly 85 percent of you will say brown. If I say “there is a hurricane in the Gulf,” your mind sees the circular satellite photo.
The media does this all the time. Hurricanes are “devastating.” They “churn” toward the coast. These images create fear and a need for us to watch news casts and click on links.
If I say, “I’m lovin’ it,” you immediately think McDonald’s.
Those images — and there are millions — are already implanted in most of us. So we don’t need to describe them in detail. If one word can put an image in our head, why do we need 30?
Think of Donald Trump and his constant references to “Crooked Hillary.” It is almost impossible now to think of her any other way.
All he has done is tapped into what I call “The Force,” the common images that exist in all of us. By finding that commonality, we can connect with anyone, because we all have something in common. Yes, even an annoying co-worker. (If you want more on that, you will have to hire me to do the seminar or wait for the audio book if I do one).
For now, by cutting down on extraneous words, and focusing solely on the meat of your conversation, you instantly become more interesting. Simply eliminating dead words first and then unnecessary ones will make all the difference in the world. Then make sure your conversations have some element of A.P.E. If asked “how was your day?” Your response should be to focus on something relevant. “I saw the most interesting story today…” Turn it into a conversation, not just an exchange of words. Engage the other person. You will find they will engage you as well.
This applies to everyday conversations, lawyers in the courtroom, nurses talking to patients, teachers, ad sales, meetings — everything.
It also applies to writing. We live in a Twitter world. Everything is faster. If I can’t get your attention in 140 words, how will I get it in a column that is more than 1,000?
Writing — specifically fiction, but it is applicable to everything — is a one-way conversation. If you do it correctly, you are putting images into people’s heads so they actually see what you are writing. It is called writing visually.
One of my favorite current writers is Edward Lazellari. He does this as well as anyone. His background is in art and he worked at Marvel, so it is a natural skill, but he paints pictures with words using the eye of an artist.
And there are multiple ways to accomplish this. Stephen King is among the very best at it. He can create a character you care about in two paragraphs and then kill him off. In the first chapter of my novel, read it with that in mind. Look at how quickly John Economy is introduced and dispatched, and think of the details and images that your mind already filled out. This is simply using the Force. (If you go back and read this article again, you will see several instances where I intentionally did just that).
Great writing is like great music. It has a pace. A cadence. It sings to us, and can pull on our heartstrings. Anger us. Make us smile.
Which brings us to the most difficult part: Writing with emotion. I referenced this in today’s article; to write or talk with emotion you have to tap your own experiences. If you are describing something awful, think of the worst thing that ever happened to you and let those emotions flow through you. If it is something incredible, think of the best moments of your life.
Funerals and weddings.
If you can then write something that incorporates all three aspects of A.P.E., you have a compelling story. The same goes for your conversations.
It really is that simple. These are all things we innately know, but do not know how to apply.
Now you know where to start. The Force is with you. What you do with it next is up to you.