Writing Secrets: Who cares if you feel it – just make sure we do

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

There’s a distinction that writers need to make before they become great. It was a point I made in a university course I taught recently – and I think it came as something of a revelation. But it’s one of the lessons I took from journalism.

As a writer, your job is not to show your readers how you are feeling. They don’t care if you find something horrifying or inexpressibly sad. It doesn’t touch them.

Your job is to make them feel horrified, or sad or angry.

I once had a journalism student who set out to write a feature about young women who were forced into prostitution after trying to escape desperate circumstances.

He was (and still is) a good writer, but when he gave me a draft, I advised him to start all over again. It consisted of this kind of thing: I climbed the stairs, the smell of excrement and boiled cabbage filling me with nausea. I was filled with horror when I saw Nadia’s bruised face. Tears rose and threatened to spill. I could hardly speak…

He stands in the way, blocking our view of his subject. Much as we might crane our necks to see past him, we can’t see Nadia at all. All we can see is my young student’s nausea, his feelings of horror, his tears and emotion.

We don’t care, though. If you really want to make your point, use your skills to make us experience those feelings ourselves.

We want to get to know Nadia, see, hear and feel what her story does to us. The writer’s job is to stand aside so that we can gain access to her, her environment, and her story, so that we’re hardly aware of him at all.

This has lessons for fiction as well as non-fiction. Don’t stand out in front of what you’re writing about. Don’t interpret it for us. Show us the outward manifestations, so that we can interpret their emotions for ourselves. We don’t want you to tell us what those emotions are, or what and how they evoke emotions in you.

Stand aside and let us enter fully into other people’s lives.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: The terror of sharing your writing

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