This post appeared originally in 2010 as “Keys to Conveying Experience”
Writing theorist Peter Elbow believes a key to effective writing is getting readers to breathe “experience” into the words. To accomplish this effect, the writer must first have the experience herself.
“Narrative,” he observes, “is a way to get your reader’s attention, but it is a rudimentary kind of attention, mere curiosity about what happens next. It doesn’t make her actually build an experience in her head. Narrative is powerful but you need to have it in addition to experience in your words, not as a crutch or substitute for experience.”
In Writing with Power, Elbow offers these ideas:
• “Direct all your efforts into experiencing—or re-experiencing—what you are writing about. . . . Be there. See it. Participate in whatever you are writing about and then just let the words come of their own accord.”• Fix words and add, cut, or modify when you revise. Think then about audience, structure, tone.
• Let your scenes grow out of an an experience rather than out of an idea.
• Ask test readers where your writing made them see or hear something. “Much of your writing will cause no movies at all. That’s par. But when feedback shows you even a few short passages that actually do it, you will be able to think yourself back to what it felt like as you wrote them. This will give you a seat-of-the-pants feeling for what you must do to get power into your words—what muscle you have to scrunch or let go of to breathe life into your writing.”• Train and practice seeing and conveying images. Elbow advises playing a game where you give other participants images until they can see a scene; do this by focusing on a small detail—not the whole terrace but “on the small table next to the canvas chair the No. 2 pencil with a broken point touching the moist ring left by a cold drink on a plastic table”—and listeners should stop you if they don’t get movies in their heads.
• Don’t use this advice about experiencing to procrastinate. Sometimes you just have to write and keep trying as you write.