The Writer's Workshop is an educational series in which seasoned/educated writers/authors will share their insights on developing writing skills. This Workshop is sponsored by Rick Henry Christopher and the Facebook group Vocal + Assist
This Installment's Instructor is Stephanie Bradberry
Stephanie Bradberry’s Credentials
Plain and simple, I am a lover of learning and literature. Therefore, it should not have come as a surprise that I ultimately ended up with a Bachelor and Master of Arts in English, despite wanting to be a Zoo Keeper. My Ph.D. would have been in English too, but…that’s another story. Most of my experience as a writer was for academics. It was the norm to read, digest and write essays on sometimes up to six novels a week or try your hand at poetry and journal keeping in a particular author’s style. However, essay and academic writing is a world of difference from writing for publications and creative writing. If you haven’t guessed, my background is mostly as a technical writer. To help improve my overall skills as a writer and become more well-rounded, I did earn a certificate in Writing for Children and Teenagers.
Many of my works lack a byline since I was/am a ghostwriter for speeches of local politicians and public speakers for law enforcement. Professionally, I morphed into a composer, reviser and editor of cover letters, resumes, and et cetera. But fresh out of undergraduate I became a high school English teacher. And three years later shifted up to higher education as an adjunct professor of Composition, English, Literature, Public Speaking, Business and Education. So, I’ve written many prompts and examples while revising and editing thousands of papers over the past 20 years.
Writing on my own is quite a different experience. I have a slew of Peer- and Non-Peer-Reviewed essays, articles and poems floating around in print and digital formats. My works can be found in encyclopedias, newspapers, writing platforms like Vocal and HubPages, and blogs.
The Importance of Research
Research is one of my favorite aspects of writing. I could spend all day researching for a topic or prompt. Writing is the issue. I’m one of those “paralysis by analysis” people. I would rather think something to death than actually do it most times.
My concept and approach to research for a writing project varies widely. For a topic that would fall under “Self Help,” much of the research is my own life and/or those around me. Technically that could be a full 40 years of research. LOL. But actual time is basically zero. For creative writing like poems, there is very little research I do unless I am mirroring a specific writer’s style or need to incorporate aspects for something like a Vocal challenge. For example, in “Beyond the Looking Glass” I simply sifted through my collection of poems by Emily Dickinson to refresh my lens for her themes, wording and voice. The “real” research was finding letters she wrote to incorporate lines, sentiments and relationships into my piece based on her real life. Total research time, about 2 hours tops. For academics I would easily spend 2-4 hours before writing an essay for a novel or poem since the essay needed to be supported by evidence and scholarly research. For my dissertation, which still hasn’t seen the light of day, it was literally months and months and months, an ongoing process since research could not be more than 10 years old from the current date.
By far the most time spent researching before a creative writing project was my entry, “Rinthybal”, for the Christopher Paolini Fantasy Fiction Challenge. I knew the style I wanted to aim for. But since creative writing is not my strong suit and fantasy was a genre, I don’t write in, I needed all the help I could get. My research started with watching all three videos Paolini made to give contestants some tips. Then I researched Paolini’s background. Next, I spent time re-reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (the vibe I wanted to go for). I also spent time brushing up on the different types and order of presentation of the Hero Journey in literature. Finally, I spent a lot of time researching diction (word choice) for my piece since I wanted to keep it all in active voice with telling descriptor words. Total time spent—minus the many times my head exploded, and snack pit stops—roughly 7 or 8 hours.
Money, Money, Money $$$
As an entrepreneur, there are several aspects about money that I keep tucked in my back pocket. And they are especially true when dedicating time to writing for a profit. But this isn’t the place for all the wisdom. So let me just focus on the best money I ever spent as a writer:
1. My college degrees: Being an English major meant that I had myriad possibilities for earning potential after graduation and after furthering my degree. English (or any native language) is needed for everything!
2. My certificate for Writing for Children and Teenagers from the Institute of Children’s Literature: I learned A LOT about creative writing, fiction, non-fiction, you name it. There was also much learned about practicality and reality. If you want to earn money as a writer or get into a publication, you need to know your audience and know how to adhere to certain formats, word counts and other directives.
3. My membership with the New Jersey Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators: Although I only did a 1-year stint, it was a magical journey. I gained so much insight to the writing industry and received a lot of feedback from real authors, publishers and agents. Through this experience I learned that I am mostly an “idea person” which is why I struggle to complete writing projects. But I also learned there is a career for being an idea person. I also learned that despite being a technical writer, I had good enough ideas and pitch technique to have an agent want to sign me (problem…she needed completed manuscripts…LOL!).
4. Vocal+ Membership: Writing on a platform like HubPages costs me nothing but time. However, there are no contests to win cash prizes, the algorithm changed to where earnings plummeted and never came back to their former glory, and now my writings are covered with tons of ads. So, paying to be part of a platform is beneficial for a person like me. First, it offers a professional, clean, sophisticated look and feel with no ads that goes well with my branding. Second, it gives me the motivation to make use of the money I’m spending. I realize in life you often have to “pay to play.” You want a $25K grand prize? Then sign up for $9.99. Side note: I had a lot of free months for just over a year with Vocal due to kickbacks for being new, not placing in contest but having a recognized entry, or participation in other Vocal related endeavors. But now that I’m back to paying I make it a point to be a dedicated writer!
Stocking Your Writer's Toolbox
Being a writer is tough business. While there are many “tools” a writer can have and add to their toolkit, none of them are useful if you don’t even have a toolbox or the understanding of how to take care of your tools. What do I mean? Imagine you have a shiny new knife. It cuts well and it is your favorite. But then it starts to dull a bit. Then you start using it for other applications like opening mail, tightening a screw or opening a bottle. Suddenly your favorite knife is a makeshift multitool.
Essentially your original knife is overworked, overused, and not handled properly or used for its intended purpose. You need to know how to properly store the knife for longevity, hone the knife to keep it straight and on point, and sharpen the knife to keep it operating at peak performance.
So, I’m not going to talk about any tools to put in your writer’s toolbox. Instead, I’m going to express how important it is to have a solid toolbox to put your tools in and the knowledge of how to keep your tools that you do acquire.
The toolbox is YOU. The best tool you can ever have is the actual thing that stores your tools. In this sense, it means continually working on YOU overall—mind, body, soul. Keep your brain keen, for this is where your writings come from. Invest in you. Be the best, solidly built toolbox you can be. Then keep learning, everything. Don’t just learn about writing techniques. Learn about all aspects of life and different art forms and disciplines. Michelangelo is most known as a sculpture, but he was also a painter, architect, and poet. His works were astounding because he studied a lot. His figures were true to life because he didn’t just replicate what he saw in front of him. He literally studied anatomy to know which muscles would change the protrusion of other parts of the body. As a writer, get your hands on every type of source material you can to buttress and edify your toolbox and help maintain any tools you put inside.
The Ego Trip
I know I said that I wasn’t going to give any tools. But I think this next bit is sort of like a tool. Many artists are described as being a recluse, charismatic or other terms that tend to fall on opposite sides of the spectrum. There are times that writers are described as having a big ego. Does this attribute help or hurt writers?
Having a big ego is a benefit to writers. There should be some level of confidence if you’re going to put yourself out there for the whole world to possibly criticize and critique you. A big ego could help a writer develop thick skin for the industry. But what goes up must come down. The bigger the ego, the great the fall when you are no longer in the limelight. For example, author Sarah Ban Breathnach details to Oprah how having a best seller for 119 weeks was elating, but then at some point she had to become number two, number three, and eventually be dropped from the list. She realized that success goes in cycles. Eventually an inflated sense of self is deflated. I believe the best way to temper a big ego is to infuse humility in order to create harmony. That would create a stellar writer personality: you can have confidence about your writing while being receptive to feedback and the not so glamorous aspects of being a writer.
The "Show Not Tell" Technique
Sometimes a writer needs to know when he or she needs help. One of the biggest areas that writers, novice and seasoned, continually need to pay attention to is “showing not telling.” For a new writer my advice would be to break your writing apart and ask questions (who, what, when, where, why, how). If you do not trust yourself to take an honest look, ask a friend. Have someone else read your work and pose questions or see if they can answer the above questions in parentheses based on the writing.
Sometimes we have a false sense of flow and description when we see and read all of our lines one after the other. We, the author, know what we are trying to display; however, the reader doesn’t. Take the following for example:
Jasmine went to the store. She bought milk. Then she returned home.
This seems like a reasonable description of a slice of Jasmine’s day. But what happens when I break it apart? I would have a ton of questions. Why? Because all the author did was “tell” me what took place.
Jasmine went to the store. (What store did she go to? Why was she going? What time of day? How old is she?)
She bought milk. (Who is “she”? What kind of milk is it? What season is it? How much did it cost?)
Then she returned home. (Who is “she”? Where is she returning from? How long was she gone? What happened prior to this?)
So, what happens when I paint a picture with words and “show” what happened? It could look something like this:
Jasmine clutched two single dollar bills in a sweaty fist as she walked in a zig zag pattern to catch the shadows cast by the intermittent trees. Ding, Ding, sang the silver bell signaling her entrance into the bodega. Jasmine placed the pink and white carton on the counter, thanked Mrs. Morales for the change, and darted home all three blocks before her purchase morphed into sour cream.
A picture is worth 1,000 words for a reason. Imagery captures so much more than words. So, it requires a ton of verbiage to even begin to grasp the encompassing nature of a scene, feeling, concept. It all comes down to description, description, description.
Ready, Set, Action!
Writing is such an interesting endeavor. There’s so much to play around with to get different results. Whether you are writing a poem, short story, essay, novel or anything in-between, there needs to be action. After writing a rough draft, you can become a DJ, quilter, special effects artist, or chef by punctuating your writing with action.
Sometimes that action is slow-paced and soporific. Sometimes the action is heavy hitting from beginning to end. And sometimes the action is so subtle if you blink you’ll miss it. No matter what style you are going for, there are key ways to make sure you get in the action.
First, you need to know what your story is actually about. If you’re fumbling around hoping the story, action or punchline will write itself, don’t hold your breath. Define your narrative from the start. That means know where you are going. Second, use lively quotations. Ditch the boring dialogue that only helps progress the narrative. Use quotations as entry points to develop characters, immerse the reader in your world, or capture someone’s inner-most thoughts. Third, build to a climax. At times writers will invert the story telling pyramid, start in media res, or pull a Pulp Fiction. Either way, you want to keep the reader’s attention and keep drawing them to your pot(s) of gold.
Spice Things Up with the Five Senses
At times a writer can easily sacrifice style for word count, prompt, genre or directions. If you find your writing lacking flavor, spice it up with your five senses. Yes, those literal five senses of sight, touch, sound, taste, and smell. Sometimes it is painfully obvious when our writing is missing that extra umph. When I come across these moments in my writing I go back to the basics. I literally ask myself, What does it taste like? What does it feel like? What does it sound like? What does it look like? What does it smell like?
Adding sensory details (sight, touch, sound, taste, smell) helps breathe life into any story or article. Just saying “Jonathan is lazy” is stagnant. But “Jonathan’s snail-like locomotion bewildered his boss” gives the reader a vision (sight) of Jonathan’s movement. Some writers literally do sensory exercises for fun or to build creativity. What does a brick taste and sound like? What does a star smell like? What does oxygen look like? What does a fart feel like?
The Last Word
Writing is truly a craft. Yes, there are times where you might have some divine inspiration or stroke of genius. But most of the time you have to put your nose to the grindstone. For any field, craft, or specialty, you need to continually hone it. Writing is a living being and very organic. So, adaptation and pivoting are required. Avoid being dismayed or turned off about revision, editing and research. They are all an ongoing process. They occur before, during and after your finished piece. Learn to embrace all parts of the process. This might mean spending a lot of your own time and money learning the actual craft of writing. Get familiar with concepts like dangling modifiers, grammar, punctuation, syntax, diction, subject/verb agreement, number agreement, and so on. As they say, you have to know the rules to effectively break them.
The Writer’s Workshop
Volume One / Installment Two
About the Creator
Writing is a distraction for me. It takes me to places unknown that fulfill my need for intellectual stimulus, emotional release, and a soothing of the breaks and bruises of the day.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Original narrative & well developed characters
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content