Monday, December 7, 2009

What Makes Strong Writing? Something to Think about as You Work on Your Book

How does a book writer create writing that pulls a reader in, that engages us so well, we can't stop reading? A favorite nonfiction writer, Malcolm Gladwell, spoke about this in the preface to his book What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures.

Gladwell's topics are potentially dry. I love his ability to present his material in an amazingly engaging way.

"Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade," he said. "It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head--even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be."

Each book writer has their topic, the thing they must write about. Some write about flowers, some write about addictions. No matter your topic, the trick is to make it engaging. It's harder than it sounds. The key is something called "container."

On Sunday I taught a one-day workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis called "Self-Editing for Book Writers." We spent all day on this question: How does a book writer move from the writer's view to the reader's? How do we get the reader engaged in our work? It usually happens in the crafting stage, or editing stage. In the class, I guide writers through a series of exercises that let them move to the reader's chair, instead of the writer's.

This is the first step to producing the engaging writing that Gladwell is talking about.

Tough Material, Great Container
In the class, we read an essay by Susan J. Miller, excerpted from her book Never Let Me Down. Miller's father was a well-respected jazz musician who hung out with the likes of George Handy and Stan Getz. But he was also a heroin addict, and her life was terribly affected by this. Her memoir is heart-breaking.

Some of the class members were really repulsed by the essay. Some couldn't even finish it. Others loved it. No one was nuetral. We had a lively debate, trying to understand why the essay affected us so much.

In the end, we concluded it was because of her extraordinary "container," the living environment of her story.

Container Equals Emotion
This is the key to engaging writing. Container, the enviroment of your book's story, delivers more emotion than plot, characters, topic, structure, or all of these combined.

"It's counter-intuitive," said one class member. You would think that good plot, exciting action, would create emotional response.

Good plot creates momentum. It drives the story forward. Container creates emotional response. It's what makes us feel hit in the gut by a story's tender moment or feel our hearts racing with anticipation by a twist. Without container, plot is just a series of events, like a newspaper report.

Why else would I, as a reader, become so engaged in the healing of a crime-ridden neighborhood, the comeback of Hush Puppy Shoes, and other examples from Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point? I don't care about Hush Puppies. Really. But I did when he talked about them. Same with Susan Miller's work. Heroin addiction is not on my list of fun things to read about. But I was totally engrossed by her tale.

Because both Gladwell and Miller are masters of writing container.

How Is Container Presented?
Container is presented in writing in several ways. Here are a few from just one paragraph of Miller's essay:

1. physical setting (being on a speeding subway train, watching the night flash by outside the grimy windows)
2. use of the five senses (screech of train wheels, whisper of her father's voice against her ear)
3. physical sensations (the rocking of a train causing nausea, felt in the body)
4. word choice ("screech" and "whisper" echo the sounds of jazz being played--Miller's overall container for the essay)
5. paragraph length and flow (a series of clauses, separated by commas, giving the impression of movement and jerkiness while on the subway train)

The effect of this paragraph--one where her father takes her on a train ride then gleefully whispers that he just dropped acid--is one of terror. A young girl is aware that her father might at any moment decide the train car is a tomb and try to jump off. What can she do? Not much. She just has to ride out the ride.

It's an astonishing container.

This Week's Exercise
Choose a dead spot in your writing--a paragraph or a page. Insert one of the above tools to increase container. See if you can let go of your preferences as a writer and be willing to see your work from the reader's view. Does more emotion come through?


  1. I was lucky enough to participate in the Mpls session you reference. I find the concept of container abstract and challenging. The nature of its impact is, to me, counter-intuitive. The significance and effectiveness,however,is clear and real as was demonstrated by the in-class exercise (essentially identical to this week's suggestion). The 'before and after' written and read by the pretty, dark haired woman relating the scenario and anticipation surrounding an upcoming holiday visit by family resulted in the class providing her a spontaneous ovation after her read of the powerfully effective and enhanced 'after'. A tribute to her talent and the influence of container. Great instruction. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Tom--it was a great group, and the before and afters were quite dramatic. I remember yours was too!