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Writing Tip from Peter Murphy

Have you "Reader Tested" your writing?

  From the March 2010 Murphy Writing Newsletter

Damn. I forgot my earplugs.I lead lots of workshops and classes for poets and writers each year. It's usually a pleasure, especially in extended courses when I can see each writer grow over a period of time.

One thing I tell my students is to make believe they must pay their reader one dollar a word to read their story or other prose. This shakes them up. Then I tell them to make believe they must pay their reader five dollars a word to read their poem. That freaks them out, but it also helps them compress their writing so that they say more with fewer words. It teaches them to be harder on themselves and to look at their writing from the point of view of a reader who doesn't know or love them.

When students ask me what I look for when I read a work in progress, I tell them I want to forget that I am a teacher, and instead become a reader who is enjoying the experience. If you can do that, I say, you've got me.

Do you know what your readers are thinking? Try my "Reader Test" to see your work in progress as an intelligent, interested stranger might.

Murphy's Reader Test

Check your writing for the following:

Make sure you're clear.
If I want to do a puzzle, I'll reach for the Suduko in the daily paper. When I read a poem or story, I want to be mentally engaged and stimulated. I want to think, but I can't get into your head unless you give me words and images that lead the way.

"Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people."
   ~ Adrian Mitchell
"You talkin' to me?"
If you're only speaking to yourself, why should I care? If you're not speaking to me, I'm only a spectator. That said, I don't mind listening to an interesting conversation which you are having with yourself. Engage me.

"Out of our quarrels with others we make rhetoric. Out of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry."
   ~ Yeats
What do you have to say for yourself?
There are few original ideas, but good writing conveys your ideas and feelings in a unique way. That's called style. The more you do this, the more successful your writing will be.

"Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood."
   ~ T. S. Eliot
Have "crafted" your language?
or, using Pulitzer Prize winning poet Stephen Dunn's word, that your poem or prose is "written," not just spoken.

"You wouldn't hand in a lot of sticks and boards bunched together with string and call it a table.  It's no better to hand in a detached bundle of statements, starting nowhere in particular, training along for a while and then fade out, and call it a ...(poem)."
   ~ Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Surprise me.
If you are writing merely to express yourself, you will bore your reader immediately and bore yourself in due time. If you are writing to discover and reveal what you may or may not know, what you may have forgotten or what you never suspected, then you will be interesting to us all.

"Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement."    
   ~ Christopher Fry
Make a little music.
There are poems that, when I read them aloud, make my mouth happy. Prose too, like Kafka on the Shore, a translation, no less! Try to write like that.

"Poetry is the music of the soul, and, above all, of great and feeling souls."
   ~ Voltaire
Don't overdo it.
You want your writing to connect with a reader; you want to create a sense of intimacy, but you don't want to cheapen your work by being sentimental. Give your reader credit for being at least as smart as you are.

"All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling."
   ~ Oscar Wilde
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