Tips on Writing to Impact Change (from my wise friends)

Last week, I was wrestling with how to teach my public relations students about writing to impact change. I looked in the usual places for inspiration on the subject (Google & the bookstore), but found very little. Suddenly it occurred to me that I have a lot of friends who, on a daily basis, are writing to impact change. Why not ask them? And so I did. I sent out an email to a bunch of people whose writing I respect and here are the answers that came back to me:

Be specific.
Be vulnerable.
Be yourself.
Christine Claire Reed

Follow the fear.  When I have something to say that I’m afraid to say because of the reaction I fear I might get, that’s when the writing has the most impact.  And I just have to sit down and write it.  If I overthink, the power dwindles.
Renae Cobb

Tell a personal story about an experience that impacted you in a profound way. A moment in which you knew with absolute certainty, this is the person I am meant to be.
– Margaret Sanders

1. Start with: “I want to tell you that…”
You’re going to erase that little line once you’re done your piece, but I find if I start with that bit of sentence, my writing is more focused on what I really want to say, and what I really want the reader to remember.

2. Once you think your piece is polished, go back and cut 20 percent more. Most of us write too much and you would be surprised how much you can cut without losing your message. Your message will be more clear because you’ve taken out all the extraneous words. If you are really long winded, you might even need to cut 30 percent.

3. Believe what you are writing about. Bullshit doesn’t make for behavioural change.
Michele Visser-Wikkerink

Think of a time in your life when someone said something to you and it
changed everything. It may have been as simple as yelling out “Stop!” as you
were about to step into the street. It may have been hearing that someone
believed in you. Or that they didn’t. For me, it was when my boyfriend
looked at a sign for theatre auditions and said to me, “Hey, you might like
that!” It changed my life forever. What words have changed your life?
Jamie Ridler

Write from your own experience.
Don’t be afraid to share your wisdom.
Be transparent with your process, warts and all.
Invite people to consider, rather than trying to get them to change.
Share your stories, because they are the best way to make a point.
Julie Daley

Learn how to network if you really want to make an impact as a writer. It’s not a direct “writing skill,” and many writers are very introverted, so writers often don’t appreciate the importance of networking if you want to impact behavioural change with your writing. There’s so much writing out there these days that it’s hard to get your writing noticed – even if you’ve put a lot of careful thought into writing catchy headlines/ book titles! You can write amazing “impactful” stuff, but if nobody is reading it, it’s not going to effect behavioral change. The thing that’s most likely to get people to notice your writing is relationships. People who know and like you will be more likely to read your stuff – and to pass it on to others. And when they read your stuff, the people who know and like you are much more likely to read your writing with an open mind and to take action.
Cath Duncan

Reframe, reframe, reframe….what is the inherent possibility or potential
and how can your words and perspective  illuminate this?  This of course
presumes potential exists and that pattern emerges from chaos.
Katharine Weinnman

Write it for the people not for yourself.
– Jarda Dokoupil

Consider these questions:
Who are you talking to?
What do you want to say to them?
What are you feeling?
What qualities do you want to infuse your self and your world with?
How can you be the change you want to effect?
Hiro Boga

I think if you come to the page thinking “I have to impact positive change” you’re going to shut yourself down immediately.

I think the most important thing is to TELL THE TRUTH, because the truth speaks for itself.  Open, honest, vulnerable writing will influence readers.
Susan Plett

1. Meet people where they are – make sure they feel GOTTEN – empathetic messages before emphatic messages
Understand change has stages
2. Give baby baby baby steps
3. Share specific stories, “before and after” style that help people see themselves both now and in the positive future you’re inviting them to
Michele Lisenbury Christensen

My writing advice is to be brave enough to make yourself vulnerable in your writing—while still being honest and respectful to yourself—and your words will resonate on a deeper level with others.  When I write on my blog I write for myself with the intention that by sharing it–my words will touch others.  I try to never write at them–but to include them in my thought process. When I sit down to write I always think “what do I want to talk about”…never “what do I want to write.”
Connie Hozvicka

Use fewer words. You may not like it that most Americans read at an 8th
grade level and have the attention span of a gnat, but that’s the reality.
If you want to communicate you have to live by it.

Create strong metaphors. If it’s wimpy, don’t use. It it’s stunning it will
Rachelle Mee-Chapman

Here is one quote I just found yesterday that I posted on my facebook.
“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” ~Arthur Polotnik

As I am editing my draft memoir I am finding it very important to be clear and to use truthful words. Sometimes I find it extremely difficult to find the words to put together a sentence that will make an impact, but then I sit down to the page and take a deep breath and trust the process, I trust that I am using the right words to make the impact that is intended. To tell the story and hopefully it will be remembered.

I find it helpful for me to read out loud what I have written, to see if it makes sense, are the words I am using, choosing the right fit for the intention? I like this process.
Marion Ann Berry

I thing the one most important thing new writers need to learn is how to tell a good story – in order to impact behavioural change, as a writer, I need to create emotional impact. To create emotional impact I need to create the opportunity for emotional resonance and, although there are other ways, a well-constructed story is one of the most effective ways to do that. Ultimately I’m interested in behavioural change that results from us becoming more connected – more connected to our true selves, other people and everything that lives and grows in our natural environment. In my experience that kind of connection can be enhanced through good story-telling. Examples could range from a well-told story about where the trash that we throw out actually goes and whose lives it effects, through to a woman sharing her birthing story.
Marriane Elliot

Use stories! Not theoretical language.
Tara Sophia Mohr

TELL THE TRUTH! Write in vulnerable ways. Write from your soul. Write from your own experience – or even lack thereof. Just acknowledge to us that your words are grounded in your own passions, doubts, strengths, weaknesses, questions, hopes, fears, etc.

Of course, this has to be appropriate to audience, but I think somehow, no matter the subject or the context, the best writing comes from the heart. When I read that kind of writing, I am changed. Over and over again.
Ronna Detrick

And here are some that I added:

1.Write for the intellect AND the emotions. If you convince both, you can impact change. If you convince only one, the other may put up roadblocks.

2. Show don’t tell. Show me why the change will benefit my life. Don’t just try to convince me with impressive stats.

3. Focus on possibilities. Show me someone just like me who’s made the change and is happy about it. Make it seem attainable.

When you’ve forgotten how to pray

Sometimes, I forget how to pray. No… scratch that – not just SOMETIMES, but OFTEN. Almost every single day.

I have a lousy memory. I forget what it takes to tap into God’s power. I forget that there is something bigger than me at work in the world. I forget that I don’t have to do all of this work alone. I forget that often the most valuable use of my time is to just SHUT UP and LISTEN.

As my last post suggests, I have too often fallen victim to the cult of productivity. We value “busy” in our culture. We don’t value sitting quietly and listening to the wisdom of the God of our understanding. Even in our prayers we think we have to be DOING something all the time. Like maybe we have to fill our prayer time with a whole lot of talking, reeling off a long list of things we think God should be doing in our lives and the lives of the people around us.

It’s not that God doesn’t want to hear from us, but often I think what God wants is just for us to sit quietly, submit our will and our thoughts, and just listen.

The book I’m writing is causing me to think a lot about the day to day presence of God. I have never had such a strong sense of the presence of God in my life as I did during those three weeks in the hospital waiting for my son to arrive. Yesterday I caught myself thinking “I wonder what I could do to go back to that place – to once again sense God’s presence in that way.”

God has a sneaky way of responding when we ask questions like that. Yesterday I read two books that, ostensibly, have nothing to do with prayer, and yet the topic of prayer showed up in both of them. First I was reading Lit, a memoir by Mary Karr that tells the story of her journey from alcoholic agnostic to sober Catholic. When she joins her first twelve step program, she has great difficulty submitting to a Higher Power. It just doesn’t make sense to her. Gradually, she learns to get down on her knees and submit. Gradually, she is transformed and she no longer has to fight the battle of addiction alone.

After finishing Lit, I picked up A World Waiting to Be Born by one of my favourite writers, M. Scott Peck. It’s a book about civility, but lo and behold, there’s a whole chapter on prayer. Peck says that when people ask him how he manages to be so productive in his life, his answer is “I spend 2 hours every day doing nothing.” Three times a day, for 40 minutes, he sets aside all other distractions and spends dedicated time in prayer/meditation. He credits his success as a psychologist and author to the fact that he submits to his Higher Power for direction and wisdom.

Two books in one evening telling me I needed to pray more. I got the message.

This morning, after the house was empty, I climbed into the bathtub and decided that would be my prayer time. Lying there, taking deep breaths, I said “God, I open my mind to your presence.” And then I lay there, open and waiting. Well, these things don’t come naturally, and just like my running practice, I know that I have to put in the day to day effort before something becomes natural.

Here’s a little how my thought process went. “God, I open my mind to your presence. Hmmm… perhaps if I picture setting a lovely table, complete with flowers and pretty dishes, and invite God to sit with me…. oooh… I  like that… wouldn’t that make a lovely blog idea? I could prepare a guided meditation for people about how to invite God’s presence…. oops… I’m slipping into meta-praying – thinking about praying instead of doing it… Okay, let’s try this again… God, I open my mind to your presence. Come sit at my table and dine with me…. Hmmm… I better make this quick. I’ve got lots of work to do. I have to prep my teaching notes and mark all those papers and…”

Yeah, you know how these things go.

But at least I’m trying. And maybe tomorrow I’ll get a few extra seconds in before my mind wanders again.

A writer writes

It can be crazy-making, this writing thing. Every day you open a vein and pour your blood onto the page. Some days the blood flows, other days it dries up in an ugly clot before it comes anywhere near your page. And then some days it feels like you’ll never be able to stop the flow and they’ll find you dead on the floor, drained by the very page that was meant to make you feel whole again.

Every day you ask yourself “Is this working? Am I digging deep enough? Am I telling my whole truth or glossing over the details that will make me look like a fool? Am I wasting my precious time for nothing? Am I fooling myself?”

The ugly gremlins want to choke you nearly every day with their resistance. “Look how well so-an-so can write. You’ll never be as good as her. Maybe you should quit and go back to writing press releases. And besides, this story isn’t worth telling. It’s horse shit and you’re delusional for thinking otherwise. You’ll never amount to anything as a writer. Haven’t you noticed? Hardly anyone shows up at your blog – it’s because you’re boring them with this crap. All the GOOD writers have thousands of readers and you… well, you’re not one of them.”

And yet you write. You just keep showing up at the page day after day and you write. Because it’s the only thing you know how to do. Because you have to. Because it feels like breathing, this writing thing – it always has. As natural and life-giving and just as desperately necessary as breathing. Try to stop it and you know you’ll soon be gasping for life like a dying lung cancer patient.

Something on that blank page beckons you back to it every single day. And so you write. Critics and gremlims and prophets of doom be damned.

Writing is what you must do. Writing is your therapy, your salvation, your peace of mind. Writing is your drug, your life-force, and – when you can bare to offer it up – your paltry gift to the world.

You are, after all, a writer and you will write. Even if the only eyes that peruse that page are your own.

About sharing stories and feeling safe

“Have you always been this open on your blog?”

A student asked me that yesterday, marvelling at my willingness to put myself out here on this “page” in such a vulnerable way, sharing intimate details of my life like my breast reduction surgery, my husband’s suicide attempt, and the stillbirth of my son.

“It’s partly just who I am,” I said. “I’m a bit of an open book and if people want to read it, that’s fine with me. It’s not always easy, but I’ve learned often enough in my life that if we share our stories, it helps other people who are going through similar stories.”

This conversation took place after a session in class when I’d asked them to do a free write around the question “If I were fearless, I would…” When I asked if people wanted to share, most people talked about their fear of things like base-jumping or swimming in water where there is fish, but one woman dug a little deeper and opened up about how she deals with depression and has actually stood at the edge of a bridge contemplating the jump. “I don’t normally talk about these things,” she said, taking a deep breath, “but… I feel safe here, so I’m going to share.”

“I’ve come through some horrible things and I want to share my stories,” she continued. “If I were fearless, I would figure out how to share my stories so they could help other people.”

“You’ve started right here in this classroom,” I said. “You’ve taken the first step and you’re going to figure out how to take the next one.”

Her words have stayed with me, as have the words of the women who spoke to me after class about my own experience of sharing my stories. “I’m so glad you’re writing a book,” one of them said.

“I’m glad too,” I said, and I am. SO glad these stories that have been burning inside me for ten years are finally finding their way to the page.

I have to tell you, though, there’s a whole other level of vulnerability that I’m having to peel away in order to adequately tell the stories that this book entails. I may be vulnerable and open on this blog, but there are still things that I choose not to share in this place – things that feel too shameful or too personal or too raw to be seen in the light of day. If I am to do this book justice, though, some of those things will have to emerge.

What am I talking about? Well, for starters, today I’m trying to work through some of the deeply spiritual things that happened for me in the hospital. I’m really struggling with how to share those pieces honestly, because some of it will make me sound a little “out there” and some of it doesn’t really fit in any kind of box I’ve gotten used to placing my spirituality in. I don’t know what to do with that yet, but I’m trying because I just have a sense that this is really important and needs to be shared.

Yesterday I re-read the following quote from Jean Shinoda Bolen:

To bring about a paradigm shift in the culture that will change assumptions and attitudes, a critical number of us have to tell the stories of our personal revelations and transformations.

Wow. That was just what I needed to hear. I wrote that quote on the whiteboard that sits in front of my desk. (And just now, as I re-read it again, I had a powerful sense of deja-vu, remembering reading something similar about paradigm shifts while I was in the hospital waiting for Matthew to arrive.)

These stories are important. Not just my stories, but YOUR stories and the stories of the students in my class. Sharing them brings about transformation and change. Sharing them changes us all.

Today on a Skype call, my wise friend Desiree said to me, after I’d shared with her some of the discussion in yesterday’s class, “it sounds like you need to teach a course about writing for social change.”

“Huh, you’re right! I hadn’t thought of that.” I love teaching the class I’m teaching now, but as you can tell, I’m not sticking to the traditional curriculum of Writing for Public Relations. I want to see my students emerge as writers who can impact change, not just get good jobs as spin doctors.

Writing for social change. That’s what we do when we share our stories. That’s what we need to do more of.

That, my friends, is why I’m writing a book, and that’s why I’m going to dig down deep and tell the stories that scare me and that might make me sound a little crazy.

Butterflies in my bathtub (or why I’m writing a book)

This morning there were butterflies in my bathtub. Their presence was all the assurance I needed that I am writing the book I’m supposed to be writing.

Let me explain…

The book I’m writing is about spiritual transformation. More specifically, it’s about how the experience of giving birth to my stillborn son Matthew brought about my own spiritual transformation.

But what does that have to do with butterflies, you ask? Well, there’s the obvious correlation between butterfly metamorphosis and spiritual transformation, but there’s more. Much more.

In the weeks before Matthew was born, I was in the hospital trying to prolong my pregnancy so that he’d have a greater chance of surviving. During that hospital stay, my friend Stephanie would often visit, and on one of her visits, she told me about a story she’d read in which butterflies had helped a young woman cope with the death of her father. After he died, butterflies always reminded her of her dad.

About two weeks into my stay, I had a very strange experience that has taken me ten years to process (and that I will probably keep processing for many years to come). Though the doctors later referred to it as psychosis, probably brought on by the steroids they were injecting me with (I did a lot of really crazy things for a 24 hour period), it was clear to me that there was a very spiritual element to what was going on. I won’t tell you everything right now (you’ll have to read the book for that!), but suffice it to say that it was scary and transformational and – in a strange way – very beautiful. It was that experience that really helped prepare me for my son’s death a week later.

When I finally emerged from whatever place my mind had gone, a nurse walked into my room holding something. “Someone must have left this outside your door,” she said. It was the butterfly story that Stephanie had mentioned, and clipped to it was a small butterfly clip. Stephanie must have visited me that day, but nobody was allowed into my room, so she’d left it at the door. I wore that butterfly clip for the remainder of my hospital stay.

In the next few days, butterflies started showing up everywhere, including one that managed to fly up to my fifth floor hospital window. After Matthew died, they kept showing up, whenever I needed a reminder of his presence. Most memorably, the following Mother’s Day, we were eating lunch, when a surprisingly tame butterfly joined us and started landing on people’s heads around the table. I think it was my mother-in-law who first said “It’s Matthew.”

So I shouldn’t have been too surprised when butterflies showed up last night.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon talking with my friend Jo-Anne about the book and about my spiritual/psychotic experience (I still have a hard time knowing how to refer to it), and she said “I have a book you HAVE to read.” She gave it to me and I proceeded to read the whole thing before going to bed. It’s written by a doctor who’s done a lot of research on near death and pre-death experiences, and many of the experiences resonated with what I experienced. I went to sleep with my brain a-buzz, knowing that my conversation with Jo-Anne had been serendipitous and that there was much to learn from all that I was processing.

Then, this morning… butterflies. In the bathtub.

My friend Jayne had given me a butterfly mobile when Maddy was born, eight years ago. Since then, it has hung in the room that was Maddy’s and is now Julie’s. Last night, for no particular reason, Julie took it down from the ceiling. It was covered in dust, and she didn’t know what to do with it, so she put it in the bathtub.

This morning, after a brief but synchronistic and exciting Twitter conversation with two friends who affirmed my decision to write the book, I went to take a bath. And there were the butterflies. At first I was just puzzled by how an odd thing like that had ended up in the bathtub. But then I realized it was BUTTERFLIES! Of course!

I think Matthew wants me to write this book!

(The butterflies are now hanging in my studio, under the light. A daily reminder of what I’m supposed to do.)

Write from your authentic voice

Quite awhile ago, I introduced this thing called the Fumbling for Words Writers’ Club. And then life got a little wacky and I found myself treading water just to stay afloat. Before you know it, the Writers’ Club went the way of the dodo bird.

Lately, though, several things have happened that helped convince me to revive that sad little dodo bird. A few people showed up on the Writers’ Club page expressing interest, I got hired to be a bonafide writing teacher, and a couple of friends asked me for writing advice. Okay, so… I get the message… writing advice is one of those things I’m SUPPOSED to share rather than keep it to myself.

The piece of advice that has been closest to my heart lately – the piece that I shared with the friend who asked me for feedback on her blog and the one who asked me to critique the first draft of her memoir – is this…

Write from your authentic voice. 

This is especially true for blogs, memoirs, personal essays, etc. Nobody wants to read your story if there is nothing unique about the voice it’s written in. Nobody wants to read a perfectly polished memoir that has no heart. If you want to write well, you have to be prepared to give away a piece of your heart.

As a professional communicator, I’ve done a lot of writing from other people’s voices (speeches, “quoting” the experts for news releases and articles, etc.), so sometimes it’s hard to remember what my own voice is. That’s part of the reason I blog – to remind myself.

How do you find your authentic voice? Practice, practice, practice. That’s the bottom line. You won’t find it if you don’t commit to it. Shitty first drafts, mediocre second drafts, third, fourth… you get the picture. It takes work. And a healthy dose of blood, sweat, and tears.

Here are a few tips to take with you as you practice:

1. Forget what your grammar school teacher taught you. Well, that’s not entirely true – remember it, but then ignore it. A good writer knows the rules, but is very adept at breaking them. A good grammar teacher would never let you get away with starting a sentence with “but” or “and”, for example. But that’s just what I’m suggesting you do. Your writing has to flow in a natural way that feels right for you, not your grammar school teacher. If grammar makes it feel too formal and stilted, then work around the rules. (I know, I know… it can be HARD to break the rules for those of us who are natural rule-followers! Just ask my daughters about how laborious my text messages are because I actually spell things out and use punctuation!)

2. Say shit if your mouth is full of it. If you like spicy language or clever idioms, use them, damn it! (But not too much, please. They get old after awhile.) Your writing has to reflect a piece of you, so let the reader see the way you would talk if you were telling them a story. Don’t polish too much. (That doesn’t mean “don’t edit”, it just means “don’t take the personality out of it when you’re editing”.)

3. Be as vulnerable as you can be. This is really, really important. If you want to be authentic, you have to admit some of the tough stuff – like what makes you cry, how you feel when you look in the mirror, and how much it hurts when a friend betrays you. It even means showing your dark side – like the petty things you do for revenge, for example. You don’t have to spill every detail (it’s still important to protect people we love, for example), but the reader needs to know that you are REAL and human and that life sucks sometimes. If your writing sounds like your therapist’s analysis of a situation rather than what’s really going on in your gut, rewrite!

4. Throw away all of the flowery words. Oh I KNOW how much you want to show off your big vocabulary and your really smart analysis of a situation, but DON’T. Use simple, accessible language. Give the reader an easy entry point. If they have to run for a dictionary, they’ll probably forget to come back. That doesn’t mean you should assume your readers are stupid (they’re not), but don’t try to act like you’re smarter than they are. Treat it like a conversation and write like you would speak. (And if you’re a professor and you normally use big flowery words, then PLEASE dumb it down for the rest of us!)

5. Pick a reader and write for him/her. Don’t try to please everyone, because that’s when your writing will become bland. It happens to me all the time – when I start to think of the broad range of people who read my blog (friends, family, work colleagues, strangers), I start to freeze up because I get worried how different people will intepret it. If it helps, picture one of your favourite people reading your blog/book/essay. Even better – write for yourself. Write to make your primary reader – YOU – happy, and forget about everyone else. Practice being a good reader and give yourself constructive feedback.

6. Read what you’ve written out loud. There has to be a smooth, even flow to your writing, so pretend you’re at a public reading and read it out loud. If it feels choppy and uneven, rewrite it. If you can’t put your personality and your own intonation into it when you read it, change it. If it sounds like a speech a politician might give, or something your grammar school teacher would have written… ummm… ditch that baby and start over again!

And now for a little of that practice…

Tell a story to your best friend. Think of something that happened yesterday or last week (or make something up) that made you laugh or cry, and then pretend you’re sitting down over a steamy chai latte telling your favourite person all about it. Use the words, phrases, and tone that you would use if you were actually speaking. Be honest, vulnerable, and a little messy. If you want, turn it into a dialogue with your friend’s response as part of it.

If you want to play along, feel free to add your piece to the comments, or put it in your blog and then make sure to tell us about it here so that we can visit.

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