All posts by Jo

Silencing the Critic in Your Head

Silencing the Critic in Your Head

Many of us have heard of stage fright, and most of us have experienced it, too. What about page fright, though? It’s that sickening feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you face a pristine piece of paper or a blank computer screen. And one big source of a writer’s nervousness and nausea is that troll of a critic that resides in all of our heads, even those of the most experienced writers. Mine might look and sound different from yours – they often take on the persona and voice of a particularly mean English teacher who once tortured us – but the critics all yammer on about the same kinds of things. They say, “What makes you think you can write? You can’t spell. You can’t tell a comma from a piece of cheddar cheese. No one’s going to want to read what you have to say.” So how do you get Ms. McGillicutty or Professor Burnbottom to shut up?

The best way to silence the critic is to put something, anything on the page. The nice thing about writing, as opposed to talking, is that it can be edited until you have it just right. So just set a kitchen timer for five or ten minutes, and until the little bell dings, just dump everything you can think of about your subject on the page. This is called free writing, one of the early steps in the writing process. Now you no longer have a blank page, and some of those butterflies in your stomach have probably taken off. You probably aren’t hearing much from that critic, either, because your mind has been on getting your ideas down as fast as you can.

Now read over what you’ve poured onto the page and start cutting and pasting, adding to, and rearranging your ideas until a pattern starts to form. You’re still in the early stage of writing, so don’t worry about spelling and grammar and punctuation at this point. Just concentrate on getting your ideas down and playing around with them. You can worry about the formal mechanics of writing in a much later stage. The most important thing you need to do as a writer is have something important you want to communicate and work on finding the best words and details to make those ideas come alive and be meaningful for your readers.

It’s In the Details

It's in the Details

Successful Writing: It’s in the Details

Before a writer starts pecking at the keyboard or scratching with a pen on paper, she needs to have a clear idea of what she wants her readers to understand. If you are writing a paper for a professor or your boss, think about the fact that they most likely already know more than you do about your subject. They and other readers don’t want you to just regurgitate what they’ve already heard or read someplace else. They might not agree with what you say in your paper or report, but they’ll respect your ideas if you provide support for your ideas.

Readers want proof that you understand the material you are covering. Professors and bosses want proof that you understand the material they have covered with you and that you are able to use or apply this information and go beyond what you’ve heard or read. Therefore, before you begin, ask yourself, “What point am I trying to make.” Avoid making your piece an information dumping ground.

Whatever your assignment – a how-to paper, a description, an explanation, an evaluation, a comparison or contrast — you will need to uncover the main point you want to make and then support it with specific details to prove that you are correct. Concrete details are used to explain, expand on, and develop the general main idea of your paper. These details provide the answers to questions like who, what, when, how, why, how much, or how many. So avoid general words like a lot, nice, big, and small in the body of your paragraphs. Use statistics, quotes, facts, anecdotes or stories, definitions, examples, names, numbers, and the five senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing) to add life and originality to your argument.

Don’t use a general word like “flower;” call it a rose or an iris or a dahlia. Instead of saying “a long time ago,” use a number to give your idea weight. Was it a century ago, a millennium, a week? By the way, how much is “a lot”? If you tell me you studied a lot for a test, I might think you stayed up all night. Actually, you spent only an hour skimming your notes, and you said “a lot” because usually you just give your notes the once over in the hallway right before class starts.

Imagine your assignment is to discuss the three main benefits of eating locally grown food. After brainstorming and thinking, researching and reading, you decide they are: save the planet, better taste and nutrition, and helping your community. Let’s just use the first point as an example, plugging in some specifics to show that eating a diet made up of foods grown within 100 miles of your home will help to prevent wars over resources and reverse global climate change because local food doesn’t have to be shipped so far, thus saving oil. A study in Iowa found that a regional diet consumed 17 times less oil and gas than a typical diet based on food shipped across the country. The ingredients for a typical British meal, sourced locally, traveled 66 times fewer “food miles.”

Working to find the specific details that support your arguments will give your main point legs to stand on, and you’ll earn a great grade or accolades from your boss, too.