The title itself almost made me throw up.
Being a good researcher, though, I clicked through anyway, hoping to be wrong. I was disappointed.
Yep — there is the suggestion my life was crap.
Yep — there is the advice about getting up earlier.
Yep — there are the mild adjectives and simple sentences.
Yep — there is the implication the author is wildly successful.
Yep — there is the ask for an email address
Yep — there is the vomit.
The relentless swill of recycled “wisdom” in the self-help genre, while worthy of ire itself, is not the topic of this post. After all, self-help in itself is fine. Asking for email addresses is fine. Giving advice is fine.
Writing with all the poise and grace of a third-grader, though, is not fine.
No matter your topic, be it the urgency of the pension crisis, the excretion of the 7-toed tree frog, or yes, even getting up early in the morning in order to live YOUR BEST LIFE(!), there are ways to write which do not compel puny, Y List Celebrities like me to throw their breakfast cereal at the wall.
So here we go:
A metaphor is when you describe a thing which cannot do or be the thing you are actually claiming it is doing or being. (Calm down, English majors. That’s essentially what it is).
“The sun rose”
“The sun was golden lava pouring over the ground.”
Of course the sun wasn’t REALLY golden lava, unless your fiction story is off to a horrific start. But it seemed like that, though, didn’t it? It looked like that. As a matter of fact, your brain thought it actually was. Researchers from Emory University discovered metaphor spreads beyond the language processing center and into the other sensory areas of the brain.
You’ve been looking for Jedi mind tricks your whole life. Turns out all you had to do was use metaphor.
Instead of bashing bad writers, let’s cheer on a good one. Dan Moore’s My Mom is a Movie Star puts on a clinic:
My mom is the epitome of cool. Her eyes could cut ice. She bounces on her toes, all muscle and kinetic potential. In her hand she holds a baton that has been lit on fire at both ends. She holds it as casually as others might grip a tennis racket. The New England night yawns out behind her.
Can a night yawn? No. Can a eyeball cut ice? No. It doesn’t matter. We feel what Dan is saying.
Make sure you go read that whole post.
Then have a good cry.
Then let’s get into…
Pacing is when you slowly lead the reader up a long and winding tunnel. You slip and strain to pull them over boulders, hop across gaps, and squeeze through the tiniest crevices. You show them the marks you followed to reach your destination before finally emerging on the very top of a snowy mountain.
Then, you push them off the cliff to their death.
“Think about when you are in a car. When you go 80 miles an hour for more than 60 seconds, you don’t even feel it anymore. But when you accelerate from 10 to 100, or 100 to 10, you feel it.”
— Some smart author who I forgot and can’t find now.
Pacing is the bedrock of good writing. Take a look at your sentences and paragraphs. Are they the same length? Do you lull your reader to sleep with long, flowing sentences which seem to never end?
Then start again later.
By the way, you’ll notice my pacing often includes a line break because I’m super dramatic like that. Good pacing works in paragraphs too. Take a look at this example from a book I’m reading right now — Ty Burr’s Gods Like Us:
“Cary Grant, the studio system’s Perfect Man, privately raged against the Academy for not giving him an Oscar and experimented extensively with LSD. Read between the lines of the existing biographies and the mythic love affair of Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy turns into a problematic tale of alcoholism, enablement, and emotional cruelty. I’m pretty sure Tom Hanks picks his nose.”
Long sentence. Long sentence. Short sentence. Easy, right? For bonus points, Ty Burr uses emotional pacing as well.
Long serious sentence. Long serious sentence. Short funny sentence.
Or take this out of context piece from Sunil Rajaraman’s Everybody’s Rich But You. What could have been a bland, self-helpy niche article about contentment as an entrepreneur turns into a fascinating read for all.
You know what? Who needs an exit? You don’t need more money. Money is only going to add stress to your life. It’s not like these people are going to be any happier. What would you do with more money? You are so lean already. You get out of the car. You spend $10 on a cup of cat-shit coffee. Your Lyft cost $17.
For comparison, here is one terrible and boring way to make the same point as above.
If you are looking to make more money, perhaps you should start with more expensive daily purchases*. The New York Times did a study that said much coffee costs an average of $6 over a few days!** Cut out coffee to save money and feel more rich***.
*Telling people what they “SHOULD” do scares them
**Please stop putting studies in your posts because Mr. Benjamin P. Hardy does it
***If this were any more on the nose, we wouldn’t even be able to see the rest of your face****.
****I know that doesn’t make much sense but I think you get it now.
Writing like yourself is when you tell your own stories, share your own insights, and connect your own pieces of your own puzzle with your own experiences and your own advice. Read your own books and watch your own movies and do your own work and tell us what you learned.
(Was that subtle enough?)
“Battle mode. Old habits. I kept my job at the Commission and wrote at night. My husband stayed in his job, too, though he wanted something different. We kept writing down tasks and ticking them off. Every now and again, we would take a breath and look at each other and try to remember if life had always been like this. Hadn’t we been fun, once? Hadn’t we laughed more?
We had forgotten how to do anything but work, as if work were the solution to every problem.”
Do you see what just happened? You read someone else’s story and learned something about your own life. Wow! Turns out you are pretty smart! I guess you don’t need to be hand-held through self improvement after all.
Surely there are a million and one ways to go about writing better, but these three are my favorites — metaphor, pacing, and writing like yourself.
Are you using metaphor, pacing, or personality in your writing? Leave a comment below and tell me how.