Saturday, February 27, 2016

What to Include and Where to Put It

I’ve led hundreds of classes/workshops on writing techniques. Even for someone like me, who has published dozens of books, every opportunity to write is an opportunity to work on craft, and the more you do it the better you will get at it. Take Facebook. While much of what is posted there is just seat-of-the-pants reactive verbiage, many posts are carefully thought out mini-essays. I have several writer friends whose pieces I look forward to reading, not just as a way of catching up, but for the pleasure of the writing.

A few weeks ago I wrote such a small essay on Facebook because something meaningful had occurred, and I wanted to share it with my friends in a way that might help them feel what I had felt. I revised what I wrote several times, and when I had finished I realized I had put as much thought into the writing and rewriting as I would have into a magazine article or part of a book. The post was successful and acquired many dozens of likes, and the comments showed me that many people had grasped the point I was trying to make. But how did I do that? By combining several writing techniques. I believe the most important one, for the maximum impact of such a short piece of writing, was my choices of what to put in and what to leave out. 

A big part of choosing what to put in is to remember to keep it simple. I wrote about this technique--which I call Less is More-- in a previous post. I used another writing technique, Showing Not Telling, in this piece, as I try to do in all my writing. I looked at all the parts of this relatively simple story, then chose the order in which to tell them for what I felt was maximum impact. I tried more than one order, then decided to move from the general (what happened) to the very personal (how and why it affected me). You might try this with a short piece of your own writing, and see how changing the order of the parts affects the whole.

Here are the facts. My younger brother died of epilepsy sixteen years ago. My husband and I were in a restaurant when a young woman sitting across from us suffered a seizure. I wanted to reassure the girl’s mother that we were not freaked out, and to help if I could. My husband and I stayed until the girl could walk, then assisted the two women to their car.

Here is the post, broken into five segments for commentary:

1) Yesterday at lunch my husband and I were getting ready to pay when we became aware that a woman at the next table was having an epileptic seizure, while her mother held her and kept her from slipping out of her chair. The seizure went on for quite a long time. I asked if there were anything I could do, and the mother shook her head no, but my husband and I decided to wait and see if we could help.2) As the young woman began to come out of it, the waitress and the owner of the restaurant packed up their mostly uneaten food, and my husband and I helped the mother gather her things into her purse. Then, when the daughter could walk, slowly, I took one arm and her mother took the other, and we helped her out to the car. I leaned into the car seat and talked to the daughter while her mother talked to my husband, then ran to the bathroom.3) I was wearing my usual bandanna, and the young woman asked me if I had cancer. I said no, I just have bad hair so I shaved my head. I took off the bandanna and showed her. She ran her fingers over my fuzzy scalp and laughed.4) They eventually left, with many thanks. My husband told me the mother had said her daughter was forty-five (she looked twenty years younger, but had probably never been out in the sun much). So this has been going on a long time. I can't even imagine what a nightmare that poor woman's life is. I'm sure she lies awake at night wondering what will become of her daughter if she predeceases her.5) I began crying when I saw the seizure, and the mother thanked me for "praying" for her daughter. All I could think about was my brother, who died sixteen years ago this coming Monday, of epilepsy.

In segment 1) I introduce the scene very simply, setting out the facts--where we were and the basics of what was happening. I could have gone into more detail about the restaurant or the seizure itself, but chose not to. I felt that the detail about the mother holding the girl to prevent her from slipping out of her chair told all the reader needed to know about the nature of a seizure.

In segment 2) I tell the rest of the basic narrative. I could have described how shaky and pale the girl was; how she and her mother had abandoned their food to deal with the emergency, and so on; but I chose instead to SHOW the girl needing the help of two people to walk to the car, and to SHOW the kindness of the restaurant workers in gathering up the food for them.

In segment 3) I show the girl as she comes out of the seizure-induced fog, and her childlike demeanor as she asks about my bandanna, then runs her fingers over my head. I did not need to say that the epilepsy had apparently stunted her intellectually, or that she probably could not function well on her own.

4) Now I segue to the personal implications of the incident, and my thoughts and empathy for the mother and her daughter. I also come to the real point of the essay, about how tragic this entire situation is for these two women and how their plight touched me.

5) In the last two sentences I show why the incident meant so much to me, personally. I could have started off--as I did above--with the news that my brother had died of epilepsy, but I believe it makes the piece much more powerful to save it for the end.


  1. You work hard so we don't have to. I remember that post well. As usual, you made it easy for US to move into the scene and why it prompted you to write about it. FB could do with more of this level!