Writing Tips

How do you know when you’ve got to the point

I was writing the other day about ‘telling it in ten’, my (current) top tip for confident writing.  The gist of it was learning to stand back from your writing and identify the key message - which should be tellable in ten words or less.  One of the comments on this post reminded me of one of the most important elements of this strategy.  How can you tell when you’ve got to the point?  How will you know?

Well, you’ll feel it somewhere inside you.  When you read or write the words that get to the heart of the matter - you’ll be able to sense it.  This isn’t a rational, intellectual reaction.  It’s a physical, physiological sensation.

I don’t know if it will be bubbles of excitement in your stomach or hair rising on the back of your neck.  I don’t know if you’ll notice that your fingertips start itching to type, a or if you’ll be aware of a shiver that runs over your arms…  I don’t know how you’ll feel it - but I know that you will.

I remembered the importance of this physical reaction when I read EM’s comments on ‘telling it in ten’.  (The author of these inspiring words is EM Sky who authors Straight From the Barrel, a fantasy writing blog.)  She wrote:

This is so true. I’ve been learning the very same thing in my fiction writing. No matter how many words there are to play with, everything needs to connect back to the underlying story, and that primary story arc always has to come first. If you leave the primary “quest” for too long, no matter what that quest is, you’ll lose your readers!

I have often seen this problem in fantasy writing workshops. The writer may say, “Well, it’s about this character who has to save the world. And this barrier has come down that used to protect the land from this evil realm. And these goblins are also acting up because of it. And the character is struggling a lot because he doesn’t know who his clan is…”

But that last bit is really the story. The character not knowing who his clan is. That’s the personal story, so that’s what the reader will care about. Everything else may be fun and interesting, but in the end it’s just icing on the cake. And that’s how the writer needs to approach the story-that’s the focus the writer needs to hang on to.

So thanks. This post helped me put these ideas into a single framework-something to hang on to while I write my own stories, and a good way to share the idea with other writers during workshops. :)

Her words reminded me of what I’d been trying to say.  How you need to come back to the underlying story, the primary story arc, the primary quest.  But more than that she reminded me of this physical reaction that signals when you’ve ‘got’ it.  Because when I read this sentence:

“The character not knowing who his clan is”…

…I get goose-bumps.

The hairs go up on the back of my neck.  It’s the shiver of recognition.  The physical reaction we get when we know something important is being said.

Try looking out for these physical reactions when you’re writing (or reading) - it’s a great way of tuning into the signals from your unconscious mind, reminding you amidst all the noise and haste that you’ve stumbled across something important.

Something worth slowing down to read.   Something that’s really worth writing about.

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6 Responses to “How do you know when you’ve got to the point”

  1. On August 11, 2007 at 1:18 am Steve Sherlock responded with... #

    I recall Galway Kinnell answering a question on when he knew one of his poems was finished saying something like; it is finished when it is memorized, not just in the head but in the stomach.

    There is so much truth to that and what you say here. There is a feeling when it is finished that you just know. Until then, there is doubt.

    Nice writing Johanna, I’ll be back!

  2. On August 11, 2007 at 8:08 pm EM Sky responded with... #

    >>it’s a great way of tuning into the signals from your unconscious mind

    That’s it exactly! Have you read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”? Fascinating book, all about the “thinking without thinking” that comes from the unconscious mind.

    I also love the Kinnell quote: “it is finished when it is memorized, not just in the head but in the stomach.”

    That’s how I know when a story’s done. I can just feel it. And there are other times when I know it isn’t done, but I can’t yet figure out what’s wrong. That gut thinking hasn’t made it all the way to the surface yet. :)

    Terrific post, and thanks for the link!

  3. On August 11, 2007 at 9:21 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Hi Steve

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment.

    I’m not a poet but recognise that feeling in your stomach when you know a piece of writing is done.

    I wonder where we’d feel it as a reader of his poems?


  4. On August 11, 2007 at 9:26 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Hi EM

    I’ve started reading a friend’s copy of ‘Blink’ but haven’t got into it properly yet. Sounds like I should.

    Thanks for sharing part of your own writing experience - that feeling when you know “that gut thinking hasn’t made it all the way to the surface yet..”

    For me some of the best writing moments are when we are in tune with what’s ‘in the gut’ and are finding the words to get it up to the surface, and out there…

    Best wishes and thanks once again for the inspiration for this post


  5. On August 12, 2007 at 10:50 am Jeanne Dininni responded with... #


    This is an aspect of writing that isn’t often discussed. Thanks for the insights!


  6. On August 14, 2007 at 12:43 pm Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    responded with... #

    Jeanne, thanks

    I was trying to tease out some of the ingredients of the writing process (for me at any rate) In trying to help others it’s often good to try and work out what we do ourselves - often instinctively, or so fast that we don’t even notice it.

    I wonder where you get that feeling of recognition yourself when you’re writing?



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