Ira Glass shares advice on how to tell your story across any medium.
Ira Glass of NPR’s This American Life recorded a session about storytelling with Current TV back in 2009. The videos just popped up on my radar again recently, courtesy of the wonderfully animated version of one portion below, which inspired me to share.
I think it’s important to note that Ira’s advice isn’t on writing, but on storytelling, which applies to every creative endeavor imaginable. Whether you’re making music, crafting a radio program, taking a photograph, or engaging in any other artistic medium, you’re essentially telling your audience a story. And anyone who’s ever tried to do that will probably be familiar with the frustration Ira articulates below.
The thing I would just like to say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. It didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have. And the thing I would say to you is
everybody goes through that.
So you see, you’re not alone storytellers. The only remedy is to plow through and get your story out there. Your taste will tell you when you’ve got it right.
But don’t take it from me. Take it from the melodic, dulcet, if slightly nasal tones of radio’s favorite curator, Ira Glass.
5 Writing Habits to Ditch Now
Our fabulous and world-worn eNotes intern returns to share cautionary tales from the battlefield of her college experience. Okay, so really she just graduated from UCLA and is dead smart, but that just means you should pay attention to what she says even more.
This time, she covers the five habits most detrimental to writing well. Follow her sound advice, or fear the wrath of the red marker…
1. Using the “Synonym” function in Word as a crutch
When you realize that you’re overusing a word, it gets really tempting to simply switch it out with another, helpfully recommended by Word itself. This can be a great tool to use, as it may help to point you in a new direction. However, blindly trusting Word’s thesaurus can also be treacherous. Often, the recommendations it gives are only similar to the word you desire.
The difference between two so-called synonyms can be marked. Take for instance a word I used earlier: “treacherous.” Treacherous, as defined by Dictionary.com, means “characterized by faithlessness or readiness to betray trust, traitorous,” but it also connotes “deceptive, untrustworthy, or unreliable” as well as “dangerous, hazardous.” This word was specifically chosen because it encompassed all of those definitions. However, Word suggests that it be substituted with “unfaithful,” “disloyal,” and “deceitful.” While it is true that all of those words are related to “treacherous,” none of them also add the element of danger that the original word does.
By blindly swapping one word for another without taking the time to consider what it means, you may lose an important element of what you are trying to convey. This can have a drastic effect on your writing, and it also tells your audience that you don’t know what a word means. Rule of thumb: double-check any suggestions Word gives you, just to make sure that it’s an appropriate substitution.
2. Passive voice
I’ll admit it: I have problems myself with passive voice. Even as I wrote that last sentence, I had to stop myself from saying “passive voice is something I have problems with.” In a nutshell, passive voice occurs when you make the receiver of an action the subject of a sentence. Here’s an example: “The bread was baked by Harry,” versus “Harry baked the bread.” Arguments against passive voice say that it makes your writing indirect and impersonal, which is never desirable. That is not to say that passive voice is never appropriate – it can be used to place emphasis on the receiver over the agent of an action, as well as to deny responsibility of an action entirely (the good old governmental favorite: “Mistakes were made.”) But make sure that passive voice is a conscious stylistic choice, and not simply the result of a lack of attention to detail.
This often goes hand-in-hand with passive voice. Wordiness makes your writing seem awkward and unfocused. Depending on the context, it can also imply that you are scrambling to meet the required word count. Keep in mind that when your teacher or professor assigns an essay, they (or their TAs) will end up reading anywhere from twenty to a hundred papers over a period of just a few days. Wordiness disrupts the flow of your paper, and makes it harder to read and understand. The more direct your writing is, the more likely it will stand out amongst all of the other confusing, imprecise ideas in the pile. Keeping it short, simple, and direct will allow your audience to focus on your ideas rather than the writing itself.
4. Quotation abuse
This goes for almost any type of writing, whether it’s for English, history, or even a science paper: block quotes should be used with extreme caution. They wouldn’t exist if they weren’t entirely unnecessary, but for the most part your six-page paper on 1984 should not require quotes longer than two lines. Relying too heavily on the original work shows a lack of your own unique ideas. It also has the unfortunate side effect of making your writing boring. If your teacher only wanted to read George Orwell’s work, they wouldn’t have assigned the paper in the first place. The general rule of thumb is: for every line of quotation, you should have twice as much analysis. Only quote the parts of the work that directly support the ideas you are trying to convey.
That said, make sure you are quoting enough of the original work as well. Your claims need evidence to support them, because it shows that you are not pulling them out of thin air. You need to strike that balance between too much and too little, because failure to do so weakens your argument considerably.
5. A semicolon for a semicolon’s sake
The semicolon is a tricky beast. A lot of people aren’t entirely sure what its function is, but use it regardless because they feel that a paper needs a semicolon to take it to the next level. If you aren’t sure what the function of a semicolon is, don’t attempt to use one. Your writing will not magically become better with the introduction of a semicolon, and the misuse of it will be a red flag in the middle of your work that screams that you don’t know what you’re doing.
If you still really want to use a semicolon, here’s the cases in which a semicolon is appropriate:
- Separating items in a list that use internal punctuation. Here’s an example:
Several people came to the party: Anna, a friend of Steven; Joel, my brother’s coworker; and Madison, the chairman’s daughter.
- Separating two independent clauses that are closely related without the use of a coordinating conjunction.
My computer is acting up; I think I need to take it in to be looked at.
- Separating two independent clauses that are linked by a transitional phrase.
I wish I could do something for you; unfortunately, it is out of my hands at this point.
Except for the first case, the most important thing to remember about a semicolon is that each part before and after this punctuation should be able to serve as a complete sentence on its own.
If you have any doubt over whether you are using a semicolon properly, just abandon it. Oftentimes it can be replaced by a period without any impact on your writing. It is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to semicolons.