Improve your writing

The Best Way to Jazz Up Your Writing

The best way to be a hit with readers — put your personality into your writing.

Years ago when I was starting out as a writer I got a part-time job as a social columnist for a local newspaper in New Jersey. I worked Friday and Saturday nights, going to charity balls and dinners attended by some of the State’s wealthiest and most successful people. I had to buy a tuxedo, because most of these events were black-tie, and I would be hobnobbing with a lot of men in tuxedos and women in elegant gowns. I would stay for a few hours, interview some of the movers and shakers, and then head back to the newspaper to file my story. This was before laptop computers and e-mail, so I couldn’t write the story and file it from my home or a Starbucks. I had to go the newsroom and write my story on a big, clunky, desktop computer, and from there the story was edited and put in the next day’s edition of the newspaper.
The first story I wrote was about a fundraising dinner for a local ballet company. There were beautiful women in gowns everywhere, svelte ballerinas mingling in the crowd, and waiters serving champagne and caviar before dinner. There was a violin quartet playing, a terrace that looked out upon a golf course bathed in the golden light of the setting sun, and the smell of perfume everywhere.

I was entranced with it all, but I tried not to get distracted; I had a job to do. I sought out the people I needed to interview, conducted my interviews in workmanlike fashion, and then left before dessert to go file my story. I spent an hour or so writing the story back at the newsroom, making sure I got all my facts and figures right, and then watched while my editor read my final version.

She curled her lip in disgust.

“This is the most boring story I’ve ever read,” she said. “I’ve seen your freelance clips, so I know you can write better than this, but this is terrible.”

“What’s the matter?” I said, stunned.

“It has no personality,” she snapped. “It’s just a listing of the facts and figures. If that was all I wanted I could have just printed the press release they sent me. I sent you there to paint a picture, to give your impressions of the event, to make it come alive for our readers. I want to know not just who was there, but what they were wearing, what funny or interesting things they said, what the food tasted like. This is a social column, remember? You’ll have to do better.”

It was a shock to me to have my story ripped apart like that, but it was one of the best writing lessons I ever had – and it was from a newspaper editor, a person you’d normally think was only interested in the facts of a story.

The editor wasn’t telling me to neglect the facts, she was asking me to take the facts and make them come alive. Only by adding sensory details, emotion, and even injecting my personality into the story could I do that.

I went back and rewrote the story, and this time I talked about the elegant ballerinas who strode around with their backs erect, like tigresses on the prowl. I tossed off a line about how easy it is to get used to someone serving you champagne in a fluted glass. I wrote about the heiresses dripping with jewels who served on the Board of the dance company. I put some of myself into the story, and this time the editor smiled and said, “Good job”.

In the years that passed I have sometimes forgotten that lesson, but my most successful writing has always occurred when I remembered it. Why is that? It’s because writing that has personality stands out. It makes an impression on readers. It’s unforgettable.

These days, that lesson is more important than ever. With all the competition for a reader’s time, writing has to jump off the page (or the screen) in order for a reader to give it a second look.

Nobody wants to waste their time reading just the facts – they want lights, action, drama. They want the writer’s impressions and thoughts about what he or she is writing about.

Make it personal. Make it colorful. Put yourself into the story. If something strikes you as funny, put that in. If you think it’s sad, then talk about that too.

The reason blogs are so successful and newspapers are dying is just this: blogs have more personality. The average big-city newspaper these days is as dull as dishwater. Bloggers take the news and inject their own personalities into it, telling readers what they find fascinating, or outrageous, or funny, or disgusting about each story.

No matter what you’re writing, unless it’s a paper for an academic journal, you can make it more appealing by putting yourself into the mix.

Get the facts right, by all means, but after that? Give your writing some personality.

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6 Responses to “The Best Way to Jazz Up Your Writing”
  • goodselfme
    October 17th, 2008 at 6:32 pm

    I loved reading this write. Lots of good points that your editor pointed out to you can be useful to me. Thank you.

  • Ruby Hawk
    October 17th, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    This was a great piece of work from a professional writer who knows what he is talking about. I am so jealous. My most sincere wish would be to write as you discribe.

  • John McDonnell
    October 18th, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Thank you for your comments. That editor did me a favor. It was a lesson I never forgot.

  • Joanne Grey
    March 9th, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    Fantastic article, thank you John. I have printed your article and highlighted some of the areas that are relevant to me. I don’t think us human writers are going to be replaced just yet by article writing software!

  • Patrick Curren
    March 10th, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Interesting approach. The final six or seven paragraphs are valuable tips. The lengthy setup is excessively wordy and self-centered, with little actionable content.

    My ideal these days as an editor is get straight to the point, avoid writing in the first person, limit paragraphs to no more than five or six lines, and continually chant my favorite mantra; accuracy, brevity, clarity,

  • John McDonnell
    March 13th, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    Patrick, I wouldn’t mind your comment, except I have to look at it every time I log in to Triond, because it’s the most recent comment on this story. So, I’m going to add my comment so yours won’t be the last. Your comments are well-intentioned, I’m sure, but they’re exactly what I’m advising against in the story. Nobody wants to read neutral, bland, “objective” writing anymore, unless it’s in a statistical report. “Self-centered” is not the kiss of death for a story anymore. And “actionable content” applies to user manuals and training bulletins, but there are other types of writing where the author’s opinion is valued. Indeed, the point of my piece was that more writers should put their personal opinions in their work — to give it some personality.

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