In the rush just before an election, especially one as important as this year’s, we at Community Spotlight expect to rescue fewer stories, and this cycle is no exception. The comments here, of course, are always full of great content. I can’t count the times I’ve seen a commenter on Daily Kos, after being encouraged to expand a sharp or insightful comment into a story, answer, “Oh, I can’t write. I’m no good at it.” I’m here to share a secret: You already know how to write. You’re already good at it; you just don’t know it.
Once upon a time, I taught writing to terrified students, students who had been taught, as I had, that writing is a mystical and laborious process. They’d learned to hate writing even before they started; their aversion was deeply-ingrained and peer-reinforced. I hated that, even though I understood it. Many teachers in grade and high school teach writing to be hard, because they themselves find it hard. The easiest way to teach writing if you don’t like to write is from the “Name the Tools” perspective: First you teach spelling, then parts of speech. Maybe you diagram some sentences.
But that’s grammar. Teaching kids only grammar and expecting great writing to follow is like a carpenter teaching apprentices the names and uses of all the saws and hammers, and then expecting them to build a house from scratch.
Picking up the tools and building—that’s writing.
Before I was taught to “Name the Tools,” I already knew the secret to writing that not even my teachers knew: Writing is as natural as speaking. In fact, writing is just speaking recorded, fixed in time and place.
You already know how to speak. You’ve been doing it your whole life. So here are four steps to get you past that terror of a blank screen.
1. The Voice in Your Head: You hear it, right? An internal narrator. A voice that speaks your thoughts to you, that tells you the story of your life even as you live it. Much of memory is sensory and emotional—the recall of colors, textures, smells, and sounds—but all around that most private and personal part of your mind is a cloud of words that your internal narrator uses to translate memory into a form you can think about.
That voice is your guide. It speaks, and your fingers transcribe. Just try it. Really: It’s that easy. Your voice may speak in fits and starts, and it may fall silent while you think of just the word you want, only to drown you in a wave, but you’ll find that, if you listen to that voice in your head, the pace of that voice will even out and you’ll be able to keep up.
You just have to be quiet enough to hear it. Exclude distractions, close your eyes, think about the subject you want to write about, and you’ll hear the words.
2. Know Who You’re Talking To: Now, of course, you really can’t know who reads your writing when you publish your story. But you know a few things about your audience: Your readers are smart, curious, and interested in what you want to say.
But if you think you’re addressing the world at large, that’s intimidating. It’s better to think of one person: someone you know, someone you respect. Aim your argument at that one person—your ideal reader.
When I write, I’m explaining stuff to my grandmother. She wasn’t highly educated, but she was smart. She was perceptive, she was exacting, and she could understand anything, including quantum physics, if it was explained correctly. And even though I loved her, I respected her more ... and was even a little afraid of her.
Your ideal reader is someone you know, someone who loves you and wants to understand everything the voice in your head says. This is who you talk to, and your authentic voice will emerge. That’s your writing style.
3. Organizing is for the Second Time Through: Sometimes, when you have something important to say to another person, your words can come out all mangled, or you put things in the wrong order. So it is with writing.
Say you can’t find the words to start your story, but you already know what the main point is going to be.
Just start with the main point. Or the middle. Or the end, and work backward. Wherever your voice is telling you to begin, start there. Getting your points down is more important than anything else. You can cut and paste and rearrange them later. Rejoice that we are past the days of typewriters, or worse, hand transcription.
I’m not going to lie: This part takes a bit of work, and a bit of practice. If you share your story with someone else before you publish it and get feedback, you may see that, yes, that third paragraph really should come before the second one, and sure, the conclusion says something a little different than where you started and you need to add a phrase here and cut a few words there to make the back end match the front end. But now you’re finished.
Well, almost. There’s one more step: proofreading.
4. Read It Aloud. Yes, really. Read the whole thing out loud to yourself. You will feel ridiculous. You’ll get tired of your own voice. You still need to do it.
Your brain knows what you want to say, and it knows what you think you wrote. So when you proofread silently, you read through your story quickly, because you “know” it’s right. You miss things. The technical term for this is eyeskip: Your eye sees something that should be there, but isn’t. Reading aloud makes you slow down and read every single word. You’ll catch misspellings, your tongue will trip over awkward phrases, and you’ll stumble through sentences that aren’t grammatically correct. Your ear, attuned to the nuances of human speech, is wiser than your eye. If something looks okay on the page but doesn’t sound right, chances are it’s not right. And you don’t need grammar to tell you this—your ear has already done the work for you.
You’ll always catch something—a phrase, a sentence, or even a whole paragraph—that made sense when you wrote it, but doesn’t now. Make a note of any place you have to pause, even for a microsecond, and go back to it. Something there is off and needs fixing. As you read, your tongue will naturally smooth out what’s wrong on a page, and when you read aloud, you’ll see the difference. However you mark that passage, mark it for correction, and move on.
It’s best if you can read aloud to at least one other person, so you can witness your story’s effectiveness in real time.
Once you’ve made your final pass, your story, fluent and in your own style, is now in publishable form, and is something you’ll be proud to share … and something that may just end up in Community Spotlight.
RESCUED STORIES FROM FRIDAY OCT. 16, 7PM ET, TO FRIDAY OCT. 23, 7PM ET
The Community Spotlight group rescues your stories to encourage more readers, interactions, and discussions of your ideas. This week our collective preoccupation with the November 3 election is evident, as seven of our nine spotlighted stories are related either to the election or to the amount of harm the Trump administration has inflicted on American society. One story had a couple of Recommendations and two or three comments when posted to Community Spotlight, and now has 326 Recs and 148 comments. This week we found:
Trump Supporting Political Group Scams Seniors with Fake Charity Message by The Critical Mind explores an old scam repurposed by a PAC that preys on seniors’ fears and pretends to support both Donald Trump and law enforcement, but pockets all the money, demonstrating how rot, once introduced to an amoral political system, spreads unchecked. “Scam charities often use the police as a hook. It is easy to scare a senior into believing that they will end up on some cop shite list if they don’t fork over the foldable..."
In My Pollworker Training, jtg documents going “through a couple of hours of training to be a poll worker,” sharing California’s poll worker orientation, with a focus on potential issues, like COVID-19 sanitation, difficulty in casting a ballot, and use of provisional ballots. When jtg asked about measures to counter disruptive elements, the trainer “made a point of implying that because this is Monterey County, such things do not happen here, and while I hope he is right, I fear he may not be.”
HUD -- crimes against humanity? Dear VP Biden by annie em is an informative and moving open letter to Vice President Biden that puts a spotlight on an often-overlooked aspect of the Trump administration: the cruelty of HUD as run by Trump appointee Ben Carson. Annie em weaves information about the current state of HUD with her own personal experiences. "It should come as a surprise to no one that HUD under the Trump administration can’t do the math. That landlords would benefit while tenants suffer under new HUD rules should also surprise no one."
On puzzles, embracing other cultures, and learning new languages by tharu1 recounts the author’s stint in the Peace Corps. Learning the local Nepali language was the beginning of a deep appreciation for the benefits of being multilingual. Tharu1 regrets that so many Americans “are stuck in one language, one mindset, and cannot see the world through a different prism. Sadly, they never experience the liberating richness of relationships outside their core group.”
In Corner Sign Rally in Cumming, Georgia by kkodithala, the Indian-American author and his teenage sons come face to face with their Georgia neighbors while rallying for Democrats. While heartened by support from some passersby, shouts from Trump supporters said much about their values. “Many drivers yelled, “F$^k Biden, Trump 2020,” and we saw quite a few people flip birds on us. They all saw children in our group, who could have been their kids. They saw older adults and women who were the ages of their parents and grandparents.”
Moral Hazard, Why There Should Be A Truth and Reconciliation Commission by lyleoross examines the double standard between the rich and powerful and the rest of us when it comes to the application of “moral hazard.” The author believes the current administration exploited inherent weaknesses in our political system, weaknesses that won’t be fixed without a full investigation, probably along the lines of a “truth and reconciliation” commission.
Top Comments: the Mondegreen edition by Ed Tracey explains the meaning and origin of “Mondegreen” as a term describing misunderstood song lyrics and literature such as poetry. Ed offers examples of the four most frequently misunderstood songs and the lyrics that we realize now, thanks to the internet, we misunderstood. "The last two examples are songs whose composers—noting the misunderstanding on the part of listeners—decided to join the chorus and in public sing the misheard lyric from time to time."
Biden is right OR Nobody is saying just how bad the US response to Covid really has been by rufe examines the COVID-19 response outcome in the U.S. by telling the story of COVID-19 in Japan. Japan has had one of the least effective COVID-19 responses in the region, and yet their society was able to get ahead of it without shutting down completely, and has had far fewer cases and deaths per capita than the U.S. "Halfway across the globe in Japan, plans are underway for the Kyushu Sumo tournament. An audience of many elderly fans will gather inside a stadium to watch naked, sweaty men wrestle ..."
“This vote must really be about something”: Unita Blackwell’s story of voter suppression by Kent Moorhead is both a memoir and a history lesson about living under segregation in Mississippi, where the act of registering to vote could, for a Black citizen, be a death sentence. In a story that is less history than cautionary tale, Moorhead writes of the many ways “I saw what comes of ‘voter suppression,’ how it subverts both democracy and good government”—to everyone’s harm.
COMMUNITY SPOTLIGHT is dedicated to finding great writing by community members that isn’t getting the visibility it deserves.
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