Writers: One Question to Ask Yourself Before You Put Words to Paper

The Most Important Writing Technique Nobody Taught You

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One question to ask yourself before you put words to paper

I’ve been writing non-fiction a long time — fiction, less-so. But one technique I learned a long ago holds true no matter what type of writing you do. This is a special question I ask myself before I put words to paper.

Before I get to this magic question, we’ll set up a writing environment for success.

There’s an expectation on the reader’s end. The reader wants a new experience when she gives up a big piece of her time (time she cannot get back). In return the reader wants to be educated or entertained — to escape or become enlightened.

We don’t want to repeat reading the same book with different covers. As readers we want novelty. We want stories that aren’t predictable. We want to escape.

The novice writer creates predictable work.

Predictable work creates a predictable read. Predictable reads create bored and unfulfilled readers. It doesn’t matter whether you write fiction or non-fiction. You’re in control of the way the story unfolds.

There’s a question you can ask yourself to avoid such work. I got this idea from a non-predictable place — improv comedy. There’s a question improve artists use when their acting on stage.

In improv, you work off the unscripted dialogue of the person before you. Part of the rule is that no matter what the other person says, you’ve got to add to the skit. You can’t ignore them and you can’t say no.

The improv comics use a very important statement with only two words:

Yes, and…

The first writing idea is not always the right idea

Whether you’re crafting the opening of a biography, or you’re opening a murder mystery, the last thing you want to do is write a scene that’s already been done.

We return to our reader’s expectation of the book. If your work is predictable the reader will get bored and may not finish the book, let alone, continue buying the rest of your work.

We ask the question to ourselves — yes, and…?

We take our first idea and ask our creative mind for more — for a better solution than the first solution. We ask the question as many times as it takes to write an innovative scene.

Some examples:

  • We open a how-to book with a cliche backstory, similar to most other books in the genre. We ask ourselves the magic question through a few iterations and the opening starts with something more exciting — more reader-centric.
  • We have our main character face a villain in a lonely airport parking lot. Sure, it’s thrilling, but it’s the same scene we’ve read in 1,000 other novels. We ask the magic question. Maybe we ask it five ideas deep. But we uncover a better situation for our hero and it makes our story unique.
  • We write a biography and start the book at the beginning, in a log cabin, with the main subject’s grandparents. We ask the magic question. Maybe we start the biography with more of a bang — with a current scene — and work our way backwards to fill more of the family history later.

There are important milestones that leave big impressions with your reader. Any time the story turns, you’ve got an opportunity to leave your mark. The first response is often the easy response — the pre-programmed, subconscious response after reading and watching so many pieces of content yourself.

Yes, and…?

When we say yes to our work, we’re not discounting it. We’re not telling ourselves we made a mistake. We accept our work, then we ask more of it. Your reader will ask more of you. Say yes to your reader.

Think about your audience

Your reader’s the one who consumes your work. If we want to create writing that makes a name for our self — that gives us a style our audience will recognize — we must create novel work.

Now that you’ve got this technique mastered, and you know the secret question, here are three more important questions for your writing:

The next time you reach a critical area of your book, remember to pause before you write the first answer that comes to you. Our minds would rather take the path of least energy. If you’ve got a cliche answer waiting in the back of your subconscious, that’s the answer which comes out first.

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