Compounding Interest

April 23, 2021

Have you ever known the joy of writing a first draft that brought its subject to life, sparkled with clarity, and flowed like warm honey?

Me neither.

Behind every good read lies a trail of rewrites. But a few techniques can give your first draft a head start on its journey.

A story to start a story

Excepting straight news writing, a short anecdote can draw the reader in. For instance, to open a profile of a new professor of French:

In high school, Jane Roe secretly listened to French Canadian talk radio at night.
The thrill when she first understood a whole sentence has never left her.

Paint a picture

Place the reader in the scene. Writing about a program that taught gardening to inner-city children? Get beyond generalities and find that kid whose mother signed him up because she couldn’t afford to buy fresh vegetables. Or the kid who never guessed what a little seasoning could do for spinach. A few details can speak volumes.

Use metaphors and analogies. “Whirlwind” may sum up a teacher who wows her students. In science writing, two molecules that can only interact with each other “fit together like a lock and key.” Use your imagination, or ask your sources for analogies that describe their work.

Give examples. If, say, you wrote, “As an exchange student, she had one eye-opening experience after another,” your readers would wonder what she experienced. A glimpse of how Americans are viewed abroad? Or how remote villagers learned English? If you beg a question, answer it.

Mix it up

Vary your sentence lengths. Steer clear of thick paragraphs, and don’t fear to make a key sentence its own paragraph. Always consider shorter, simpler words and phrases. Revise and edit mercilessly.

Read!

Classics, pulp fiction, nonfiction, comics, news, poetry—exposure to a variety of literature deepens your potential. Also, read your own work aloud; dull stretches or awkward phrasings will leap out at you.

And have fun.

Internal communications messages help build rapport with our colleagues and students. Share your best tips by being a guest blogger or contacting us at internalcomms@umn.edu.