Let Your Format Set You Free

When the powers-that-be at my little graduate school discovered, many years ago, that I worked as a journalist, they recruited me to teach the introductory undergraduate journalism course. Nobody else wanted to teach it–it wasn’t, as one of my colleagues apologetically told me, like teaching “real” writing. No, journalistic writing had a structure, almost a  formula, and my colleague believed that eliminated any chance for creativity.

I disagreed.  I had found, paradoxically, that the structure actually set me free.  With the form and function decided, I could concentrate on the ideas, the words, and the content.  I did some of my most satisfying writing, during those years, for the pages of our little small-town weekly newspaper.

As bloggers, we are regularly faced with writing decisions.  We find our topic; we decide on our approaches.  What about length?  What about tone? How much should we include of what touches us, but is, in essence, someone else’s story?  Do we paraphrase or try to write the dialogue in conversation, as closely to the way it occurred as possible?

There are weeks when the choices overwhelm; then, it is nice to fall back on a structure, on a format, and focus just on the joyful parts of the writing life:  choosing the content and crafting the words in which to convey it.

Do you have weeks like that?  If so, you might want to play with some established formats, too.  Here are some of my favorites.

1. The five-paragraph essay. I had Dr. Oliver Smith (not his real name) for advanced composition in college, and he was a dictatorial stickler who made us write a classic, five paragraph essay every week.  That was during the days of anything goes, do your own thing, and flower power; Dr. Smith, a tiny, balding man, showed up for every class in a crisply pressed shirt, a brown tweed suit with sharply creased pants, and a bow tie.  To say he was tightly wired would be a vast understatement.  He would stride in at the stroke of the hour and begin immediately, teaching a roomful of long-haired, laid-back hippies in granny dresses, bell bottoms, beads, and vests.

I didn’t like Dr. Smith; I thought he was rigid and unimaginative, but about halfway through the course, I started to get the hang of the essays.  I had become discouraged at seeing ‘C’ or ‘B’ at the top of my papers, with comments like, “Obscure,” “Ill-defined,” or “Disorganized” in his cramped, blood-red inkings.  It made me mad; I vowed to get the hang of it, and after enough practice, enough futile attempts, and a few desperate conversations in the great man’s office, I began to get the flow.

“Tell the reader what you’re going to say,” Dr. Smith advised me, “then say it.  Say it clearly and thoroughly in as few words as possible. Then, tell them what you just said.”

Like any other kind of writing formula, this essay format is a structure that’s meant, once learned, to be flexible. ( Here’s a nice explanation: http://www.certifiedchinesetranslation.com/essays/)

In its most rigid form, the five paragraphs are these:
–an opening which contains the topic sentence and the ‘road map’–the three key points you are going to discuss.
–a body consisting of one paragraph for each of the key points
–a concluding paragraph that refers back to your opening.

Of course, sometimes you have one key point, and other times you have two, or four.  Sometimes your writing overflows the boundaries of three body paragraphs.  But learning the rhythm of this structure creates a discipline that surfaces unconsciously.  A few years ago, wanting to learn about my new community, I served as a ‘citizen member’ of our local newspaper’s editorial board.  As such, I was invited to write op-ed pieces on topics that were dear to me.  After I submitted my first attempt, the editor called me and said, “I just want to tell you how wonderful it was to see that your last paragraph referred back to your first.  So nice to see that format!”

I hadn’t intentionally tied the essay up so neatly–I owe that discipline to the rigid Dr. Smith.

2. The personal interview.  Once, in a community education writing group, a participant asked the moderator how she found her inspirations and story ideas.  The moderator was an accomplished feature writer, and she believed that her job, as a writer, was to find the right questions to ask.  But the stories, she said, were everywhere.  If you have five people in a room, she told us, you have at least 30 stories to tell.

I took that to heart and gradually developed an interview style.  At first, I felt awkward asking to interview people; I thought it was an imposition.  But most people are genuinely honored to be asked.  It’s a luxury, isn’t it, to spend an hour talking with someone interested solely in what we have to say?

After someone agrees to be interviewed, I gather as much information about him or her as I can.  I don’t want to waste time with questions that I can find out from a public record or prior knowledge–things like job status, education, family, etc., are probably available somewhere.  I’ll put those facts together and let the subject check them and make any changes needed.

Then I try to create a series of questions that unlock the person’s desire to talk.  I avoid questions that can be answered with one word. If you ask some people whether they like what they do for a living, you may get a crisp “Yes” or a dismissive “No.”  Better to ask what the best part of their work day is, what the most satisfying project was that he or she oversaw, or for details of a successful endeavor that brought the person to your attention.  Draft up a list of thoughtful questions that will open up the areas you’re curious about.

If you can meet the person for an interview, that’s wonderful–you can see reactions, hear tones, watch her eyebrows raise, or see him grin.  But these days, interviews are often done electronically; in that case, it’s great to establish a dialogue.  Whatever the method, it’s important to ask follow-up questions and then to touch base afterwards to clarify any points you might be hazy on.

An interview, I think, deserves a great opening,–a strong couple of paragraphs that explain why this person is worth reading about.  Then we have to decide whether to use a Q and A format, or to paraphrase.  If the subject is a great communicator, Q and A lets his or her words shine.  If s/he was reticent and you had to ask several follow-ups to get to your main points, you may want to put the interview into a narrative-style piece.

(Check out Meg’s wonderful piece on writing dialogue for guidance in that construction!  https://blogging101alumni.wordpress.com/2015/12/31/he-said-she-said-writing-dialogue/ )

I always hope for an illuminating, definitive quote that will stand as a conclusion, but, if I don’t get one, I try to write a satisfying wrap-up, too.

(It occurs to me, with the wonderful variety of folks we have in this forum, it might be fun and fascinating for us to take turns interviewing each other…)

3. Poetic Forms.  The wonderful, classical structures of poetry give shape to our thoughts and sentiments and description, allowing our words to soar.  I think it’s delightful to read a wacky and offbeat interpretation of what has come to be considered, maybe, a stuffy old structure.

Some of my favorites:

The villanelle (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poetic-form-villanelle) Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gently” will always be my favorite, but this form, with its rotating use of inter-related lines, is always fascinating.

The sonnet (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poetic-form-sonnet). Choose your poison–Petrarchan, Shakespearian, or Spenserian. Let the strict structure set you free!

The bouts rime’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bouts-Rim%C3%A9s).  I encountered this form in a weekly writing group I attended many years ago.  Each of us wrote out a rhyme scheme, and we put them in a pot and selected.  I remembered being absolutely appalled at what I received (there was something about the Dalai Lama and about the sport of bowling within scant lines of each other), but it’s a wonder what the human mind can make sense of.  The poems turned out good enough to be included in an anthology we eventually put together. The bouts rime’ evolved as a parlor game, and it’s most fun to do in company with other writers.  If you’re a word geek, as I am, you may enjoy exploring this unique poetic form.

Some weeks, it’s like my head has a hinged lid and Someone opens it and drops in a fully-formed ‘something’ about which I can write.  I know what I want to say; I know how I want to say it.  But other weeks, it’s harder.  I hit my morning pages hard, push myself to journal, trying to discern what it is I want to write about. And even when I find the focus, I don’t always know how to address it.

Those are the weeks I need to impose a form on my writing. I choose an established format, like one of the ones above, and hope my imagination and wordiness will take care of the rest.

Happy blogging, my friends!

#creative writing