Break out of your comfort zone: Tips for writing outside the lines


Photo credit: Wikipedia, Antonio Litterio

I guess I’ve always been a writer. For some reason, the process of translating the thoughts in my head into words on a page is one I’ve found I must go through in order to make sense of the world.

So, one of the things I love most about my job is that each week brings a new writing assignment — from blog posts and brochures to press releases and creative briefs. But rarely am I forced outside my comfort zone the way I was this summer when I took a “Writing From The Senses” course with former New York Times writer Molly O’Neill.

Every Tuesday evening for six weeks, I’d dial in to a conference call and, fighting brain-fog from a full day of meetings and emails, would do my best to complete Molly’s free-writing challenges, spewing as many sensory descriptions as I could onto the pages of my trusty moleskine.

It was not easy.

But the experience was a good one, and it armed me with several new writing tricks I’ve already put to use in my personal and professional projects.

Want to do the same? Here are a few simple tips to help hone your craft:

1- Write now, think later – Our desire for order, efficiency and perfection often tempts us to edit as we write, but doing so is a bit like donning a lead suit before attempting to swim across a lake. It makes the writing process much more arduous and is likely to leave you feeling beat-up and exhausted just a few paragraphs into your project. So, don’t worry about your words sounding silly or your first draft being crappy. Just get your thoughts on paper – as many as you can – and then come back to them later with a fresh set of eyes and finish the shaping process.

2- Attempt an out of body experience – One way to conjure up rich illustrations is to frame things as if you’re describing them to someone who’s never encountered them before. Lean on your old friends from English class, simile and metaphor, to help you draw comparisons that pain a more vivid picture of everyday objects or practices. Here’s what I came up with to describe that singular summer pleasure of steaming crabs to someone who’s never experienced it.

When they go into the pot, they are grayish blue with a tinge of orangey brown, legs floundering and claws snapping all the way. Their scent is not quite fishy, but a little like garbage, rotting and festering in the sun. As they steam, that scent becomes more potent, and oddly enticing.

Vapor from the pot seeps out and crawls in a stream into my nose. Suddenly, I’m back at the beach as a little girl, relaxed and carefree, skin crispy from the sun and salt water. This is an exciting treat. Not just a meal, but an event. A shop class project, as evidenced by the array of tools laid out on the newspaper-covered table top.

As the near-decaying mass is poured onto the table, the scent is overpowering, intoxicating … deep, salty and spicy hot, like someone has barbequed the ocean.

3- Separate the senses – If you want your writing to draw on all the senses, start by taking them one at a time. Spend 5-10 minutes treating your subject through the lens of each sense: sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. So, if you’re covering baby carrots, you might end up with something like this.

Sight: It sits there on the plate looking naked, like a snail without its shell and stripped of its antenna, rubbed clean and bald like an old bar of soap that’s somehow managed to not quite dry up.

Smell: Fresh and fleshy, wet and watery, like the smell of the mouth of a garden hose … and soapy, a bit, like a child’s wet head after he’s just had a bath.

Sound: Dropped on the floor, it sounds like child’s wooden building block – wood hitting wood. When I break it in half it releases a loud pop like a broken bone. Ground between my teeth it creates a rumbling, like a factory in the back of my cheek.

Touch: It lies hard, wet and cool in the palm of my hand, slippery with the algae-like film that’s formed around it. It crunches between my teeth like I’m chewing soft wood with splinters that get stuck in the back of my throat and make me fear I’ll choke, but somehow dissolve before I do.

Taste: Before I bite into it, it tastes like soggy cardboard. As I dig my front teeth in, a little sweetness seeps out, a soapy sweetness that gets more intense as I grind the meat between my back teeth. I’m like a paper mill, grinding, grinding, grinding the solid mass into a pulp, squeezing every last drop of moisture out of it. Each new grind releases a little more flavor, sometimes sweet, sometimes soapy, sometimes a little spicy. Now, a mouthful of chlorinated pool water seeping down my throat.

Once you’ve viewed your subject through each individual sensory lens, you can pull out the relevant phrases or ideas and weave them together in a way that presents a 360 degree picture for your readers.

Tuck these reminders away near your keyboard or notepad and pull them out before you dive into your next writing project. You’ll be surprised how interesting your work becomes when you’re willing to try writing outside the lines.

Check out Poets & Writers and Cook ‘N Scribble for more writing inspiration, and feel free to share comments and ideas below!

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