You Can Still Write an Exciting Article on That Topic

A writer sat at her deskPhoto by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Last week Monday, a friend asked me to proofread his 10,000-word essay on how data storage technology has evolved over the last decade. Because I once bought a floppy disk and slotted a 128MB flash drive into a dusty Pentium II system unit in high school, the essay wasn’t all Greek to me. But worse than Greek, reading it was a thankless task.

Halfway through the essay, I wanted t scream at him for clubbing me with an interminable piece. Then lightning struck in my mind. It reminded me of how a lot of writers, for practice or payment, will have to write on a less exciting subject some day.

I realize you may also have write to impress your readers, an editor, or a panel. You can either give them the simple task of passing your work over or give them the pleasant role of passing your work around. To achieve the latter, you have to fall on some excitement to snatch your article from the jaws of boredom. Here are three ways to do that.

While a lot of writers only evoke the sense of sight when they write, the great writers know good writing appeals to the senses of smell, sound, taste, and touch too.

The top writers try to make the readers enjoy their stories through all five senses. Said Mary Karr in her book The Art of Memoir, “You must help the reader employ smell and taste and touch as well as image and noise.”

When you speak to all the senses, or at least more than just sight, you build empathy. The reader relates a little more with the places, objects, and characters in your story.

I took out this paragraph from a friend’s account of his second visit to a beach in Ghana as an example. He calls himself a novice novelist, but he’s miles ahead of me on the writing curve.

“To my right, the waves lashed the rocks that stood like sentries on the shores, startling me mid-thought. Alone and enjoying the solitude, I gently sank my feet into the wet sands of the Cape Coast beach. What a far cry from my first visit two years ago, I thought. Amidst the fun of interacting with other tourists, I had to wipe a smear of cold sweat and droplets of lukewarm spittle from my arm. Oh, and when a couple handed me their iPhone while dishing out photography instructions in a strange tongue, garlic breath filled my nostrils. I felt it was too early to chew on a clove. But then, I’m a food-loving writer, not a dietician.”

He does a good job stimulating the senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste, and so should you, in your next article.

How to speak to the other senses

In his book Good With Words, Professor Patrick Barry of the University of Michigan has a simple exercise called Strive For Five. He recommends finding any story you wrote recently for practice. It could be a first draft, a published article, or a research proposal.

“Once you find your story, read it over with five different-colored pens or highlighters, one for each sense,” he says. Paint your story with the different colors as you read.

If you’d rather go digital, on your preferred word processor, you can highlight the five senses in different colors. After the exercise, a good story will look like a bright rainbow; a terrible one will be like an overcast sky. Go to work and start correcting for the deficient colors.

Colored pencils arranged in a circular shapePhoto by Mahbod Akhzami on Unsplash

Put pressure on your words

I first heard this phrase from Salvatore Scibona, novelist and professor of English at Wesleyan University. By that, he says to pick the exact words that describe to a tee what you intend to say.

While many words may mean almost the same thing, some are a bit more descriptive, more evocative, more revealing than their synonyms. If you were describing a shard of glass in the sun, for example, you’d need to settle on one of several words that could communicate what you’re trying to say.

You could say it glistened, glittered, reflected, shone, sparkled, dazzled, etc., in the sun. But how do you know which verb to pick? “It comes down to mastering the language in which you’re writing,” he says.

How to master the language and put pressure on your words

As with every skill, practice builds big biceps and makes a master. It starts with building your vocabulary. While reading is a giant first step, a lot of people only develop a passive vocabulary through reading. About all they do is build up their word reserves with the new words they learn, barely using them.

But a better approach is to develop a lifetime habit of building an active vocabulary. One way is by learning collocations and applying them often. Instead of stacking up new words you will hardly use, find which words go together and the best context to use them.

The Online Oxford Collocation Dictionary is a helpful tool for that. Learning which words roll together and mastering when and how to use them is a great way to put pressure on your words.

Play with your words

Have you also noticed some words look sexier lying next to each other? Sometimes, it’s the rhyme of the syllables; at other times, the rhythm of the words. But they always look like the perfect couple cavorting on the beach.

An article on Merriam-Webster.com estimates the English language has some 170,000 words. The challenge lies in cherry-picking the colorful words that are fair game.

But not for the great writers. They have a knack for playing with words by picking the perfect words to ignite a spark. One way you can also do same is through contrast.

As an example, here’s how an Associated Press reporter started the game report of the NBA season opener between the Brooklyn Nets and the Golden State Warriors:

“Kelvin Durant shook off 18 months of rust in a matter of minutes. He looked as good as new against his old team.” (Italics mine). It’s hard to compare 18 months with 10 minutes, but that’s the intrigue the writer created with the power of contrast.

Again, the writer could have said, “he looked good against his former team.” But he went for more contrast by choosing “new,” knowing Kelvin Durant played against his “old” team.

In your first draft, some words that spring to mind may be a little shallow. Take a second to dig deeper for words that can help you pump some contrast into your sentences when editing. (Did you notice the words, first, second, shallow, dig deeper, and pump?) Playing with words boils down to picking words soft to the writer’s pen and malleable to the wordsmith’s hammer.

Sometimes, you can’t escape writing on a boring topic. But you can help your readers escape the boredom inherent in that topic. One way to do that is to ask yourself these questions before you push the publish button:

Did my story evoke all the senses? Were my verbs the best I could find? Were my adjectives colorful enough for contrast? You may have to rethink or even rejig. But that may be what you need to write a more exciting article out of a boring topic.

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