visionary

Mind the Voice

In which we learn about the two voices we can write with: Active and Passive

Image Courtesy Shea Writing & Training Solutions

Visionary Writing Techniques #15

“Mind the Voice”

by John Onorato


Wow, y’all can be really wordy sometimes! (And I love it!)

Still, being wordy can be a bit of a turn-off. We’re all in a crunch for time. It’s like we all have have the attention span of a … ooh, look, a squirrel! … and we’re just itching for an excuse to move on to the Next Big Thing.

With so many businesses, people, friends, customers, and clients clamoring for our attention, we have to be “spot-on” with our messaging.


Mind Your Voice

Good, strong writing always uses the active voice.

Well, ok, almost always.

The active voice is positive. Strong. Concrete. More direct. The subject of the sentence is something or does something. The active voice uses a tone that is strong and clear.

When using the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the verb of the sentence. “Subtle” and “weak” are qualities often attributed to the passive voice.

Pop quiz: Were you paying attention? What “voice” did I use to write the two paragraphs immediately above?

Get a ⭐ Gold Star ⭐ if you said something on the order of “The active voice sentence used the active voice, and the passive one used passive voice.”


But That’s Not All

That’s not the only difference between the two voices.

When using the active voice, it’s easier to keep your word count down. This is because in the passive voice, the sentence’s subject is acted upon by the verb. This necessitates some form of the verb “to be” plus the past participle form of the verb, plus a preposition. Usually. (English is weird, I know.)

Let me share a small example.
Active Voice: “David threw the ball”
Passive Voice: “The ball was thrown by David”

Both sentences say the same thing. In both sentences, David hauls off and chunks a ball to someone off-screen. But one of those sentences takes 4 words, whereas the other takes 6. When considering just once sentence, 50% more words is no big deal. But in the context of a whole essay, it makes a bigger difference ❤

All that being said, sometimes the passive voice comes in handy. If you’re a politician, say — they seem to avoid the active voice at all costs! Later on I’ll talk about a few other situations where the passive voice would be appropriate.

Or let’s say you’re writing an essay about a llama. (Yes, I know that in the visionary group we tend to write about things other than llamas. But that’s all I got for right now!). In that case, the sentence “The llama was lloved on by the llemur” is appropriate.

Why? Because the subject of that piece is the llama. Thus the active voice sentence “The lemur loved on the llama” might not fit as well. It brings too much attention on our lemur friend.

Those last three words — “by the lemur” — is a short prepositional phrase that identifies who is performing the action. But even though the lemur is the one doing the loving, he’s not the grammatical subject any more. Using the passive voice enables you to drop poor Zoboomafoo (the lemur) from the sentence entirely, as “The llama was lloved on” also makes sense.

Generally speaking, the active voice is more appropriate, more useful. But the passive voice has its uses too. Do write most of your sentences with the active voice, though, unless that sentence won’t make sense any other way.


Other Occasions

The passive voice is not “incorrect.” Nor is it “bad” or “wrong.” At the same time, though, it tends to sound dishonest. Stiff. Evasive. Even less trustworthy than it possibly could sound. That’s why politicians use it a lot.

But who wants to do business with someone who sounds dishonest? Who wants to work with people that avoid taking responsibility in their words? After all, if they avoid responsibility in their words, it’s likely they avoid it in their actions and business practices as well.

Face that responsibility head on. Own it. Take charge of it.

Passive Voice: “An error was made on your account.”
Active Voice: “We made an error on your account.”

Put another way: When using the passive voice, it’s easy to muddy the waters. It’s easier to obfuscate the subject, as it’s typically not specified.

When using the active voice, you have to identify the subject. In the passive example just above, an error was made. Great. Who made the error? Who is responsible? We just don’t know.

In the active voice example, it’s clear that “WE” made the error. And sure, that pronoun can refer to just about anything, but that’s the subject of a different essay.


In Conclusion

This is English we’re talking about here. So there are no “hard and fast” rules.

At the same time, though, you’re better off using the active voice when you’re writing about a definite subject that’s performing a definite action.

In other situations, the passive voice works well. Like in scientific contexts Or in reports of incidents in which the agents are unknown. Or if you want to emphasize the action itself, and the agent of that action is distracting or irrelevant.

Now get out there and write! I love reading your essays 🙂

Posted by John Onorato in Visionary, 0 comments

Showing and Telling

Photo by Aljoscha Laschgari on Unsplash

Visionary Writing Techniques #14

by John Onorato

No, “showing and telling” isn’t a reference to what you might have done in elementary school. Then again, there are some parallels. Read on to find out what they are.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

— Anton Chekhov, Russian playwright, 1860-1904

The quotation above is a maxim of writing you’ll hear again and again: “Show, don’t tell.” It doesn’t matter if you’re writing an essay for the Visionaries, working on a novel, or even a narrative podcast. “Show, don’t tell” is still one of the primary guidelines for writers both new and experienced.

But what do I mean by this?

I’m glad you asked.

Let’s Break It Down

Put succinctly, when a writer ‘tells’ us something, they’re summarizing or using exposition to tell the reader what’s happening. Telling is sometimes required, yet it often feels flat and lifeless.

On the other hand, when a writer shows the reader something, they describe what’s going on. They use action to help the reader paint a picture in their minds. Use your words well, and you’ll enable your reader to craft a movie in their heads.

Confused yet? Here are some examples.

Telling:
Fred was sad when his girlfriend left.

Showing:
Fred tried to hide his tears as he watched his girlfriend board the train back to college.

Here’s a longer example, especially crafted for the season we’re in right now:

Telling:
The house felt spooky.

Showing:
Lit by a single candle, the room flickered with uncertain shadows. The house smelled like rotting wood and decaying meat, with a bright metallic overtone which made Fred think of blood. The walls were arrayed with strange taxidermy: a buck with crazy eyes, a grizzly rampant in frozen fury, and an owl in mid-flight, its talons molded into a cruel shape.

Granted, these examples lean more towards the fictional. But in the essays we write for this program, as we use examples from our own lives, and as we use concrete examples (both subjects I’ve written about before), we want to create similar experiences in the minds of our readers.

Indeed, creating experiences in the minds of our readers is one of the best ways we have of teaching. And in so doing, we don’t have to make our readers live through the same experiences that we did!

How to Show and Not Tell

In the examples above, showing is more descriptive. It makes the writing vivid and clear. Showing enables the reader to experience what’s going on for the writer, by letting them interpret the descriptions the writer provides.

Consider the “telling” examples. They’re boring, aren’t they? Flat, too. Telling limits the reader’s experience. It gives them but a single way of understanding the story.

So how do you show us things, if you’ve been telling about them for so long? There are at least four ways to do so.

  1. Use dialogue. Even if you don’t remember a scene from your own life that well, use dialogue to recreate a sense of it. ” ‘Don’t you dare walk out that door!’ Fred yelled’ is more effective than “Fred was angry.”
  2. Use clear adjectives and specific nouns. Use them to paint a descriptive picture for your reader. Don’t just tell us that Grandma baked a pie. Describe the golden crimped crust of Grandma’s famous apple-cinnamon pie cooling on the windowsill.
  3. Include sensory details. Yes, it’s entirely possible to give us too many details — just ask Stephen King. Still, it’s usually better to err on the side of ‘too much’ than ‘not enough.’ Show us the sounds, the tastes, the smells and sights of your subject.
  4. Use strong verbs. Don’t say “I walked to the store.” Show us how you skipped, sauntered, strolled, ambled, or even galloped to the store.

An Exception to Every Rule

I get you. Here in the Visionary Program we’re writing about ourselves and our internal narratives. In times like these, it’s usually better to tell and NOT show.

Internal narratives are crucial, since they help us comprehend what made the writer react the way they did in a particular situation. One of the best parts about reading is getting to walk around in another character’s head for a while. To only show everything is to deprive the reader of that pleasure.

So yes, I’ll admit it: Sometimes telling is a better technique than showing, at least when it comes to writing internal narrative.

Why is that? Because showing relies on actions.

“I remember a time when I was angry,” you might say. “I shoved my chair back, leaped up, and pounded my fist on the table.”

This shows us that you were angry, but we don’t know about the nuance of the feeling. Maybe you were hiding a core of fear. Maybe you were internally happy about how things were going, and only pretending to be outraged.

We won’t know unless you tell us.

Most of the time it’s preferable to show us how angry you were by describing what happened to the table when you hit it, or how the room shook when you slammed the door on the way out.

But sometimes, you just gotta tell it like it is.

Conclusion

So there’s no hard-and-fast rule to this stuff. It’s all subjective, and it’s all relative to what you’re trying to do.

But one thing is universal: We all love stories. When you’re writing these essays, whether you realize it or not, and however small it is, you’re telling us a story. And when telling stories, it’s usually better to show us what’s going on, rather than just telling us.

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Engaging With Emotion

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Visionary Writing Techniques Essay #13
by John Onorato

We humans love a good story.

Consider the success of a few movies: Star Wars. The Hunger Games. The Color Purple. Titanic. Gone With the Wind. Jaws.

Now consider a few books: Don Quixote. Alice in Wonderland. The Wizard of Oz. Harry Potter.

What do these books and movies all have in common? I’ll give you that the commonality might not be easy to pick out, but if you think about it …

If you think about it, it’s really pretty simple.

They have great stories.

The Other Commonality

Granted, these stories have gone through endless amounts of refinement and re-jiggering. Every stray word, every misplaced image, every character that doesn’t serve the plot ends up on the cutting room floor.

I wouldn’t presume to think we have that kind of time or person-power as we craft our essays.

Now, I’ll be writing another essay on using Story at a later date. But in this moment, I’d like to draw your attention to another thing these stories have in common:

They engage our emotions.

Yes, we humans love a good story. And we engage with those stories through our emotions. Our essays are stories, and a story without emotions seems flat. And even lifeless.

“But John,” I can already hear you asking. “How do we create emotions in our readers?”

Easy-peasy! You evoke those emotions with emotion words.

It’s All In the Words

It’s easy to classify emotions as “good” or “bad,” positive or negative. Yet those words are not specific enough to elicit an emotional response from our readers.

Consider the Junto Emotion Wheel.

An aside: There are many different “emotion wheels” and methods for refining basic emotions. They’re all valid and all useful. This is just one of them.

According to the Junto model, there are six “basic emotions.” There’s love, joy, and surprise. And there are the less positive ones, or fear, anger, and sadness.

Let’s look at Love. The basic emotion of “Love” can be further refined into “enchanted,” “romantic,” “affectionate,” and “sentimental.” The emotion named “euphoric” inhabits a space between Love and its neighbor “Joy.”

These emotions can be further refined into different words with slightly different connotations. (Remember, a “connotation” is the undercurrent of a word, the feeling that it invokes in addition to its literal meaning. This literal meaning is also known as the denotation.) The word “enchanted” refines into “enthralled” and “rapturous.” And from the word “sentimental,” we get “tender” and “nostalgic.”

Here’s the Trick

So that’s the groundwork. Here’s the trick to generating greater engagement with your words, no matter if you’re writing a Visionary essay, copy for your website, or a letter to your Dad:

Use the words.

That’s it. Just use them.

The verb forms are best to use. If you say “Fred came into the room,” that’s flat and lifeless. The reader is confused because there are a zillion different ways someone can come into a room. There’s no telling what the writer had in mind, so the reader will create an image in their head that makes sense to them. But it might not be in line with the original intent.

The writer then has to do more work to provide relevant information as to how.

On the other hand, if you say “Fred exploded into the room,” you already know that Fred is enthusiastic and energetic (at least in this instance). It’s a safe bet that Fred is a positive, happy person.

Now let’s look at Claude, who is terminally depressed. We can say “Claude is depressed,” but again, that’s lifeless. Flat. (As per the nature of depression itself!) But if we say “Claude skulked into the room,” we can tell there’s something up. He might have some nefarious motive. He might be sad. We don’t know yet, but we WANT to know.

In other words, we’re engaged.

We can also use adverbs to display emotion. Adverbs are words that typically end in -ly, and they modify verbs. As in: “June ran happily.” Or “The movie ended abruptly.” Or “Her mod outfit displayed Brigit’s delightfully quirky personality.”

Conclusion

To recap, we humans love stories. And we love it when our emotions are engaged. One way to engage our readers’ emotions is through the use of emotion words. Words like love, joy, and fear are good, but too general to make much of an impact. Instead, use more specific words. Using emotional adverbs is a good idea, yet an even better one is to use precise verbs.

So I challenge you: In your next Visionary essay, use emotional words. And see what kind of engagement you get 🙂

Posted by John Onorato in Visionary, 0 comments

How to Hook Your Reader

Image Courtesy FineArtAmerica

Visionary Writing Techniques #11

By John Onorato

We all want our readers to feel excited when they start reading our essays. And if not actually excited, we at least want them feeling interested.

But how do we ‘make’ our reader be interested in what we’ve poured our efforts into?

We do that by grabbing their attention with a good “hook.”

A hook is a bit of writing at the top of your essay. Also known as the introduction, a hook is meant to engage a reader’s curiosity.

As writers, we want our readers to read our pieces all the way through. We want them to wonder what happens next. And the best way to do that is with a good hook.

There are several different types of hooks. They are:

  • Quotation Hook
  • Description Hook
  • Story Hook (a favorite of mine)
  • Metaphor or Simile Hook
  • Facts and Statistics Hook
  • Declaration Hook
  • Interesting Question Hook (another favorite of mine)

Quotation Hooks

Some of you are using quotations already. This is awesome!

With this kind of hook, you draw your reader in with a quotation. It can be from someone famous or well-known, but it doesn’t have to be. Just be sure to attribute the quote — tell us who said it, even if it was you.

You can quote anyone, so long as it connects with the rest of your piece.

Do this:
“It will be done with you when you are done with it.” — Jonathan England

Not this:
“When you’re done with something, it’ll be done with you.” — Some guy I know


Descriptive Hooks

Use a vivid description to pull readers into your writing. Good descriptive hooks make readers want to know what comes next.

Writing an essay about Ego? Hook us with your description of how you’ve fought your own Ego. Writing about Integrity? Hook us with a description of how Integrity shows up in your own life.


Story Hook

Stories draw readers in. Humans are natural storytellers — all of us are! — and we love reading and hearing the stories of others. How did they surmount that Ego challenge? How did they offer Acknowledgement to other people? How did this writer display Integrity?

Readers love memorable, well-written stories. Just be sure the story you tell is related to the topic at hand.

This type of hook is typically a bit longer than other kinds of hooks, but can be even more effective when used well.


Metaphor and Simile Hooks

I love metaphors and similes. They get readers to think about the topic in a different way, not the “usual way.” Your readers will wonder what you mean, and how you can compare this thing to this topic, even when it seems unconnected.

A quick review: Metaphors compare two seemingly unrelated things to one another. One example is “Jonathan is a shining light.”

Of course, he’s not really a light. He doesn’t have a filament growing out of his head. But he acts like one.

Two things about similes:

  • they use the words ‘like’ or ‘as’ to connect the parts
  • they are typically not as strong as metaphors

The above statement can be rephrased as a simile: “Jonathan is like a shining light.”


Facts and Statistics Hooks

Here in the Visionary Program, most of what we deal with is highly subjective. Thus, Facts and Statistics type of hooks might well be wildly inappropriate. Still, they do offer objective information about a topic, and readers love that. So you can still conceivably use this type of hook.

All you have to do is provide facts that are interesting, reliable, and accurate. Make sure your source is credible, too — not just something you read one time here on Facebook or saw on YouTube.


Strong Statement Hook

Also known as the Declaration Hook, this kind asserts a claim about your topic. It shows the overall importance of what you’re about to say.

It doesn’t matter how your reader might feel about your statement. What they’re interested in is reading how you support that statement.

One example of this kind of hook is “Ego has been the bane of my existence for 48 years of my life.”

Ego might have played a similar role in your life, or you might have it well under control. Either way, the bold statement piques your curiosity about what the writer might say next.


The Question Hook

People are curious. Inquisitive. We love reading questions, and finding out the answers even more. If you ask a question, that spurs the reader on. They’ll try to find the answer to the question you ask later on in your text.

Just be sure to ask questions which relate to your topic. Asking unrelated questions only serves to confuse the reader. Was this essay about Acknowledgement? Then why did the writer ask a question about Ego?


Conclusion

These are not the only types of hooks. These are not the only ways to draw readers in. Yet they are some of the more effective ways. I know that if I was reading essays, I would like being “hooked” by one of these methods.

Let’s get out there and hook our readers! Let’s get folks to read our words like the professionals we are!

Posted by John Onorato in Visionary, 0 comments

Got Two Minutes? I Can Improve Your Writing Forever

Image Courtesy GoodFon.com

Visionary Writing Techniques #010

by John Onorato

We’re all busy, so I’ll keep this short.

There’s a lot of writing advice out there. Some of it works, and some doesn’t. Like with the other articles in this series, though, I’m going to address some fundamentals — address these issues, and watch your effectiveness with the written word soar.

As you know, I’m a professional freelance writer. What follows are several short tips that improved my writing immensely — and they can work for you as well.

Let’s dive in.


1 — “Shorten Your Opening Sentence.”

Is your opening sentence compelling? Check.
Is your opening sentence short? Check.
Is your opening sentence conversational? Check.

Does your opening sentence go on and on and on, seemingly without end, finally collapsing, exhausted, right next to the dustbin of failed sentences that might be run-ons but maybe not?

I reckon you can do the math on that one.

Example: “This is a post that’s going to help you become a better coach.”

This becomes: “I can help you.”

See? Shorter. Punchier. Better all-around.


2 — “I think”

Almost universally, this phrase adds exactly Zero Value to your writing. Delete to make your point stronger.

Saying “I think” is the literary equivalent of adding a question mark to your sentences.

In our daily speech, we say “I think” when we don’t know a thing for sure. But if you’re writing about it, it’s better to give the impression you know what you’re talking about. Hence, drop the “I think.”

Example:
“I think I slept poorly last night.”

This becomes: “I slept poorly last night.”

The latter form sounds more assertive, doesn’t it?


3 — “Running, Jumping, Climbing”

You can also drop words that end in “-ing.” Also known as gerunds (or verbs that function like nouns), the suffix makes the word softer. At the same time, it adds little value. Although proper use of gerunds can lend writing a lyrical quality, generally speaking your writing will read better if you avoid them.

Example:
“The forms we’re seeking are often disappointing and underwhelming.”

This becomes: “The forms we seek often disappoint and underwhelm.”

Notice how the punchier sentence has fewer words? It often works out this way 🙂


4 — “That”

This is a word which makes sense, but around 90% of the time you can omit it. Doing so will instantly make your sentences stronger.

Example:
“You thought that I was sleeping, but I wasn’t.”

This becomes: “You thought I was sleeping. I wasn’t.”

Sure, you can use this word to “pad” your word count, but do you really want to?


5 — “Short paragraphs. Shorter sentences.”

Most sentences you can cut right in half, immediately making them punchier and stronger. Having a two or three word sentence is not a crime.

At the same time, vary the length of your sentences in order to keep interest.

A good rule of thumb is to keep each paragraph to three sentences (or less.)

Remember: Readers LOVE white space.


So. Five tips, five opportunities to make your writing better. Let’s get out there and make the most of our words!

Posted by John Onorato in Visionary, 0 comments

Introductions, Conclusions, and Takeaways

Image Courtesy Ellensburg Frame Express

Visionary Writing Techniques #007

by John Onorato

When writing pieces for an audience — any audience — introductions and conclusions are important.

Why? Because your message is important. As a coach, you want people to hear your message. As ambassadors of Earthwaking University, whose mission it is to wake up the world, it’s important for people to hear your messages of Love, Light, and Connection.

And repetition gets the point across. Therefore, when preparing a message for an audience, it is vital to:

  1. Tell people what you’re going to tell them (introduction and provide context)
  2. Tell them (get your message across)
  3. Tell them what you just told them (conclusion, takeaway, and Call To Action)

In this Visionary Writing Techniques piece, I’m going to talk about introductions and conclusions.

Why Intros and Conclusions?

Intros and conclusions are different parts of the same puzzle.

Another way to think of introductions and conclusions is as “framing” for your essay.

Just as a beautiful frame enhances the beauty of a picture contained within it, proper framing enriches the content inside.

Good framing helps your reader better understand your essay.

An introduction prepares your reader to ingest the ideas within your article. It gives them some idea of what to expect.

A conclusion reminds your reader about important key points from your essay. It also gives you a chance to leave a lasting impression on your reader. When you tell them what you’d like them to get from your efforts, that’s your takeaway.

Grabbing Attention

Nearly each moment of every day, there are at least a thousand things competing for our attention.

Therefore, the first few lines of your introduction are critical.

Why should anyone read your piece, when there is a plethora of other articles on the same subject?

Think of your first few lines as a “hook.” Your hook grabs the attention of your readers. It also serves to introduce the general topic.

Just as there are many different ways to catch fish, there are many ways to write good hooks. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Tell your reader about a common misconception regarding your topic
  • Give your reader a humorous short story (or anecdote) which captures your topic
  • Share an interesting statistic or fact
  • Set the scene for the rest of the story: Who, what, where, when, why, how?
  • Ask a rhetorical question (a question intended to make a point or to create dramatic effect)

Your Final Thoughts

As with introductions, conclusions can be presented in many ways.

Use the last few lines of your essay for your concluding remarks.

Use your conclusion to remind your reader of how the evidence you’ve provided contributes to your topic. What’s the scoop — what’s your take on the larger implications of your topic?

Another approach is to broaden your focus. Your last sentence can provide your reader with material to think about, or remind them of a concept illuminated by your preceding words.

Rather than merely summarizing the key points of your piece, recommend a specific course of action. Warn your readers of the possible consequences of not addressing the issue you talk about.

You can also use the last few lines to drive your point home. Give your reader a quotation to lend authority to the conclusion you’ve reached. Or provide a startling fact or statistic which illustrates your point.

Relevant narrative drawn from your own life experience is also a good thing to include here.

You can also “come full circle”: If you used a quotation, anecdote, or other example in your introduction, return to it in your conclusion. Add some additional inside which comes from the body of your piece.

In Conclusion

Clearly, introductions and conclusions are linked closely. The techniques I’ve outlined for introductions also work in conclusions, and vice versa.

Remember the musical analogy I used in VWT #004, “Read Your Own Writing”? Your essay is a symphony made of words all working together to create a whole more magnificent than any one piece taken by itself. An introduction can be thought of as an “intro” to that song, and the conclusion the “outro.”

With a beautiful frame, you’ll have a beautiful message. Think of an introduction as part of the puzzle which includes the body and your conclusion, and you’ll have an easier time writing.

Posted by John Onorato in Visionary, 0 comments

My Process: Preparation is Key

Mario Ybarra, Jr. delivering keynote. Image courtesy The Iris/The Getty

Visionary Writing Techniques #006

by John Onorato

Diving in and just talking about a subject is a great strategy when you already know a lot about the subject.

If you happen to not, though, preparation is key.

Even if you already know a lot, though …

Everyone benefits from some behind-the-scenes preparation. This is how coaches seem seasoned; this is how we look well put together and on top of things.

We prepare before we go public.

“Opportunity does not waste time with those who are unprepared.”

― Idowu Koyenikan

As y’all know, I’m a professional freelance writer. I frequently write about subjects I know a lot about — self-development, disability, the craft of writing, editorials and the like.

Just as often, though, and especially for clients, I write on things I don’t know that much about. So I thought y’all might like to hear about the process I use to write articles.

It works for me. And I hope it works for you as well. I’d love to hear about how you’ve adapted my process for yourselves!

The steps of the process are:

  1. Get the Idea
  2. Research
  3. Write Freestyle
  4. Reread What you Wrote
  5. Pull Out the High Points
  6. Flesh out Those Points
  7. Edit & Clean Up
  8. Publish!

The rest of this article will talk about each of these steps in a little more detail.


Get The Idea

Here’s the easy part. Just decide on what you want to write about.

For these assignments, Kirk will hand you a topic to write about. Let’s say it’s Ego. You may also decide to write about something on your own.

I recommend and encourage this latter course of action!


Research

Here’s where you get all of your mallards (ducks) in a line.

I might read a few articles about Ego, maybe watch a few YouTube videos. I won’t choke down everything about the subject, though. Rather, I’ll focus on areas of the topic that interest me.

If you already know a lot about the topic, then use this step to consider a few sub-topics you might write about.

If you want to make a mind-map about the subject, now is the time to do it. Sometimes I’ll make one, sometimes I won’t.

Within the topic of Ego, I want to know how to downplay its role in my life. I don’t like it when my Ego ‘takes over,’ or when I ‘get on my train’ and listen only to my own counsel.


Freestyle!

Here’s where it gets fun. Before all that good research leaks out your ears, write about it.

Write freestyle! Write for fun! Write for yourself! Don’t worry about grammar or correctness; you aren’t going to be sharing this pre-first-draft with anyone.

This is only to start getting your thoughts (and your final article) in order.

For me, this part of the process works best if I write at least 1,000 words. It also works even better if I write by hand, in one of several notebooks I keep for just that purpose.

(Writing by hand is similar to writing on a computer, but the process is very different. I’ll talk about those differences in a later piece.)


What’s Important?

Now, re-read your freewriting. Make note of the most important parts. You can circle them, or write them on a separate piece of paper.

These points will be the bones of your finished piece.

Arrange them in a way that makes sense to you. Order them so they tell a story!


You Betta WORK!

Your next step is to put some meat on those bones in front of you.

Write a line or two by way of introduction.

Flesh out the points you pulled out in the step above.

Be sure each idea connects to the next.

Write a line or two for conclusion. Bonus points for providing your reader with a takeaway or Call To Action (CTA)!

Phew! Now take a break. You’ve been busy!


Edit & Clean-Up

This step works best if you put some time in between it and the one above. A couple of hours works fine, but a day or two is even better.

Go back through what you’ve written above. Tighten it up, remove extraneous words, fix any spelling or grammar mistakes.

This is a great time to read your piece aloud, like I suggested in VWT #004.

promise your piece will be more effective if you edit.

So.
Much.
Better!


Publish!

Now it’s time to pull the trigger. Drop your piece in the Visionary group, or push it to its final destination.

And pat yourself on the back! You’ve done some great work here.


In Closing

I’ve used this process for quite a long time. Although some forms of writing (like correspondence) don’t require this much prep, it works great for almost any occasion you’ve got to present something to others.

In fact, this process works so well for me, I’ve got a Post-It note near my monitor to remind me.

Now get out there and wake up the world!

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Concrete Examples

Image Courtesy Wylie Communications

Visionary Writing Techniques #005

by John Onorato

It’s easy to write about physical objects.

It’s not difficult to describe the weight, feel, and roughness of a brick in your hand. It’s not hard to talk about the smoothness of your cat’s fur in a way that will make your reader understand.

But here in the Visionary group, we talk about a lot of high-falutin’ concepts. Although it’s easy to make general statements about these concepts, this is the hallmark of a beginning writer.

It is more effective, and thus arguably “better,” to focus on specifics. It’s a good idea to provide concrete examples. When you do so, your writing becomes stronger.

Introduce With an Example

Read the following for an example of what I’m talking about.

“Mediterranean and Baltic are the principal avenues of the ghetto. Dogs are everywhere. A pack of seven passes me. Block after block, there are three-story brick houses. Whole segments of them are abandoned, a thousand broken windows. Some parts are intact, occupied. A mattress lies in the street, soaking in a pool of water. Wet stuffing is coming out of the mattress. A postman is having a rye and a beer in the Plantation Bar at nine-fifteen in the morning. I ask him idly if he knows where Marvin Gardens is. He does not.”
— from “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” by John McPhee


Now, without looking back at the passage, try and recall some of the images.

Do you recall the dogs? The windows? The mattress? The postman?
Why do you think you remembered those things?

You were able to recall them because they were memorable images. You can see them in your mind’s eye. Although the specifics of our internal images will differ from person to person, we’ve all seen dogs. We all know what windows look like. We each have more-or-less a common base of experience around mattresses and postmen.

The good writer knows this. The good writer draws on this. The good writer uses concrete imagery to tie the images in their head to the same images (or similar ones) in their readers’ heads.

And Now for the Opposite

What if the author above had written the passage differently? What if he had said “The ghetto is a poor neighborhood. There are lots of stray dogs, abandoned houses, broken windows, and a mattress on the sidewalk.”

Why is that passage not as effective as the first one?

It’s not as effective because it states a general fact. It then offers a few details, but no concrete specifics are mentioned. You might end up with a hazy rendition of a poor neighborhood in your mind, but it is not likely to be a clear picture.

The Lesson Here

As writers, our implicit goal is to have readers see what we see. We want them to understand what we say.

One of the better strategies to do this is to illustrate your ideas with specific examples. Concrete objects are ideal.

A concrete object is just that: Something you can drop on your foot. You can drop a brick on your foot. So too with a wet mattress or a window. You can even drop a stray dog on your foot. The postman might strenuously object, but you could still drop him on your foot. Theoretically speaking, of course.

Concrete objects convey ideas and concepts more effectively than abstractions such as poverty.

The more you write about actual things — objects you can touch — the more readers will enjoy and understand your writing.

Of course, here in the Visionary program, we talk about abstract concepts such as Love, Compassion, Integrity and Coachability. I realize it’s hard to “drop those on your foot.”

So the trick here is to use examples from your own life. Those can be just as concrete as a brick or a postman.

Tell us about that time you showed Love to the stranger. Talk about the time you chose to remain in Integrity with yourself, even though it meant pissing a friend off. Remind us about the Compassion you felt when you visited the hospital.

Or whatever it might be.

Illustrate your words with examples from your own life. That’s the trick to having your words remembered.

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Read Your Own Writing

Image Courtesy nme.com

Visionary Writing Techniques #004

by John Onorato

As you all know, I’m a professional writer.  World-class, even!  

Today I’m going to let you in on another little secret that improved my writing from the first time I used it.  

I’m completely serious.  There’s no hyperbole in there at all.  We’ll get into hyperbole later, but for now, just know that hyperbole is the greatest and most amazing invention since sliced bananas.  

(and that’s what hyperbole is:  Massive exaggerations that aren’t meant to be taken literally.)

So here’s that little trade secret.  Yeah, most pro writers know about it, and most amateurs don’t.

That secret is this:
Once you’ve gotten to a place where you think “I’m done, now I can drop this in the Visionary group and get back to my regularly-scheduled life,” go back over your work.  

Re-read your work.  
And not only that, but read it aloud.  

That’s right. Speak it. Give life to your words, through your voice!

Reading your work aloud is the best way I have discovered to find out how my writing really sounds.  Which is another way of saying “How good my writing is.”

There are lots of benefits to be had by reading your work out loud.

First off, reading aloud is a great proofreading technique.  It helps you catch errors in spelling and punctuation; it also helps you choose different (and hopefully better) words than what you used in your first draft.  It also makes certain things painfully obvious, like missing punctuation and awkward word placement.  It  also becomes obvious when you’ve repeated words a few too many times.  

Reading aloud helps with grammar.  When someone reads aloud, you pause where you would naturally.  And when you pause, you need punctuation — usually a comma or period.  You might also notice when you haven’t taken a breath in a while.  This is frequently indicative of a run-on sentence that needs to be broken up.

Reading your work out loud reveals holes in your thought process.  It shows us places we haven’t been clear enough, and helps us remember information we might have left out.  It shows us where we might have missed some important points.  When reading aloud, it’s much easier to detect flaws in your logic.  You will quickly know when you need to tidy up your argument, or where you need to research more, or when you might need to not mention a point you can’t really support.

Reading out loud enables us to make better word choices.  Words convey meaning, and we have lots of words with similar meanings because words also convey nuance.  This is that distinction of connotation/denotation I was talking about earlier.  Hearing your words out loud helps convey nuance in a way seeing it on a screen might not.

Finally, reading aloud reveals peculiar rhythm and pacing.  In a symphony orchestra, musicians work together to create something greater than any of them could do alone.  When you’re writing a story or article, words work together in the same fashion.  Each of them has its own small task, and when taken together they form a cohesive unit that is larger than the sum of its parts.  

Want to hear how well your orchestra is performing?  Read it out loud.  One short, choppy sentence, or several in a row, serves well when you want to underline an important point.  But use too many of these in a row, and you’ll sound robotic.  Conversely, long, complex sentences are sometimes required — yet they are also best used sparingly, like exclamation points or F-bombs.

You’ll never know unless you re-read your work.  You won’t be aware of these things if you don’t read your words out loud.

Ever played with a tape recorder?  Then you know your recorded voice will sound different to your ears.  It’s not the same voice you hear in your head, through your bones.  In a similar fashion, your words will sound different when you read them.  Words sound differently to our ears than they do in our minds, when we read them on the page.

Sure, your writing might be great already, all by itself.  Just as your “real” voice is the voice others hear, though, your writing is only as good as others think it is.

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Alliteration and Assonance

Image Courtesy Writing Forward

Visionary Writing Techniques #003 

by John Onorato


Want to write words which are memorable?

Then alliteration and assonance are your friends.  

I’m sure you want examples.  Those first two sentences represent alliteration.  The word refers to the repetition of the first consonants in nearby words.

An aside from the Department of Just-In-Case:  We all remember what vowels are:  A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y.  Consonants are every other letter in the alphabet:  B, C, D, F, G, and so on.

Tongue twisters also show us alliteration:  “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.  A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked.”

If you can say that ten times fast, you’ll be a master of alliteration!  And you’ll be way further along than I:  That was even hard for me to type in one go.

Assonance is a similar and related concept.  It refers to the repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words.  

Dr Seuss was a master of assonance:    

“Today you are you    
and that is truer than true.    
There is no one alive    
who is youer than you.”

Alliteration and assonance can lend a lyrical, sing-song quality to your writing.  When used consciously, they can set or change the mood in a written piece.  

They also allow the writer to highlight particular connotations of words.  

Well, that’s great!  But what are connotations?  The second edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains over 171,000 unique words.  Each of these words has a denotation — the literal, or primary meaning.  Also known as the dictionary definition.  

Many words in the English language have connotations as well.  The word “connotation” refers to the feelings and ideas that word suggests.

For instance, take the word DISCIPLINE.  Per Google, its second definition is “a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education.”  Yet in certain circles, many of them quite common, the word “discipline” carries with it the ideas of repression and punishment.

The takeaway here, therefore, is to be careful when and where you use certain words.  A long time ago, in a high school essay, I used the word “ilk” to describe a group of people.  My English teacher called me out, saying the word carried with it connotations of a dismissive or disparaging manner.  Given the the essay as a whole, where I was speaking favorably about these people, “ilk” wasn’t a great fit.

According to its dictionary definition, I could have used “crony” just as well.  Once again, though, this word has certain negative connotations.  Taken literally, a “crony” is simply a sidekick or pal.  But the connotations of the word suggest you and your pal are up to no good together.  It also suggests “cronyism,” or the practice of unfairly giving friends promotions they’re not qualified for.

So that’s a lot right there.  We started by talking about the sounds of words, and ended up with the meanings of those words.  Given how many words there are in English, there are literally quadrillions of combinations those words can be in.  Thus it’s crucial to understand how these words work together so you can use them to their maximum benefit.

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