Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Standing Out: Writing that breaks the rules

When clarity is at a premium, dull writing has it's place. I do not want instructions on how to use a parachute to be a great read. I want them to help me survive the drop from an airplane.

But, in a world full of distractions, fiction, opinion pieces, speeches, and manuscript queries, need to hook readers and keep them engaged. Take, for instance, the cover letter for a job. The Web is full of templates with logical structures. The advice to make your letter stand out centers on using keywords, focusing on capabilities, mentioning contacts, and being specific to the opportunity (rather than taking a generic approach).

Here's the opening of the last job letter I wrote:

Tuning phrases with an IBM VP while federal agents pulled the corporate jet apart for an hour was just part of 24 hours of no food, no sleep and no breaks. A major speech in front of skeptical clients dictated my flying to Toronto for a polish, then editing and reworking material on the flight down to Miami and finally rehearsal and revamping of charts into the morning. But the speech sold the idea of e-business and got good press.

It doesn't fit a template, but it's relevant -- providing a sense of my experience and how I work. It's not crazy. I did not provide a resume marked off to be folded into an origami swan. Within the body off the letter, I had the keywords for the job and explained why the job and the organization interested me. But I designed my letter to be intriguing and to stand apart from those of other applicants. I got the interview and the job.

Fiction writers know how important hooks and voice are to catching a reader's attention, but they can forget. The amateur manuscripts I read (and some in print, too) often seem to be manufactured from a model aimed at delivering required information within the first pages. In some cases, you could map the chapter of one book onto the chapter of another point by point. In the effort to get it right, the story is forgotten. The elements -- including the hook -- can feel contrived.

How do you write work that stands out?
  • Relax -- Reliance on the tried and true is based on anxiety. Ironically, the more you want the writing to achieve your aims, the more you are likely to fall back on formulas, formats, and rules that promise success. Take a deep breath and put that all aside, at least at the beginning.
  • Have fun -- Telemarketers are encouraged to smile as they make their pitches. Supposedly, you can hear a smile over the phone. Likewise, the emotions you have as you write usually come through.
  • Be bad -- In both senses. Be willing to write poorly as you compose, and to risk revealing your dark side. The former can be fixed. The latter may be what the reader is looking for.
  • Tell a secret -- Truth or dare, baby. Write what you don't want the reader to know. If they'd lean in to hear it, you might have something worth keeping.
  • Cut -- The most common thing I see in manuscripts is the true voice emerging around page 15. It's almost always worth listening to.  But after all those pages of throat clearing, prettied up language, and "what the reader needs to know," how many readers are still around?
  • Play -- Mess with the order. Run a scene past the ending. Slip in some poetry. Write from a different point of view. Do things that delight you even though they may be cut. Even if the experimentation doesn't make the final copy, it influences everything else for the better.
  • Trust your reader -- Don't explain everything. Imply. Hint. Wink. Do something you know you won't get away with. Yes, some readers won't get it. Those aren't your readers.
  • Make it different -- If it reads like everything else, change it up. You make it stand out by making it yours.
  • Check for clarity after it's done -- When you are happy with your work, let someone else read it and ask them if anything confused them. You might also ask if they wanted to put it down at some point.
  • Review -- Now you might want to pull out your formats and templates and rules. Chances are, you'll find your writing does the job. It may even include, in its own way, everything that's "required."
Obviously, fiction, which must provide an emotional experience, can take advantage of this advice to stand out. So can memoir. And queries. So should the bio you include with queries. Electrify, defy, annoy, disgust, charm, and arouse. Don't bore.

No comments:

Post a Comment