Getting Personal, Really Personal

Sunday, September 25, 2011
I'm reading some writing which has made me re-consider my own writing about personal issues and how to deliver my feelings to my own readers.

Often a writer is trying to get at a personal truth and hopes and dreams and wonderment. But what is left on the page is one dimensional. The in-depth soul searching is left in the writer's soul or journal. When a writer most believes she is over-reaching, in truth, she is barely reaching out.

Often, as writers, we may take a shortcut. We tell our feelings, but we don't layer them using descriptions that deepen our readers' understanding of who we are.

As with fiction, self-help and personal nonfiction benefits from additional color and description.

We assume our readers will understand what we're saying by just writing "I felt bad." But we leave out the richness and three-dimensional element of ourselves. "I felt so bad that my heart sped up and my stomach churned" or "I felt so bad it felt as if my blood drained from my face and I ran from the room." While these are basic examples, I think it provides a difference that readers can more closely engage with the feelings the author is having and gives the bad feelings a bit more scale. Maybe even accessing an earlier scene that can bring more depth to the scene at hand.

But as writers, as our draft comes to completion, we shouldn't stop there.

We've all done it--given our writing to someone who understands us or who, at least, knows of our desire to be published. We hand over our writing to someone in our writers' group or someone who has read the previous six drafts. Those someones know or can easily interpret our "shortcut" to our emotions. They often understand the scale when we write "I felt bad."

I suggest that those writing about personal struggles and emotions find a reader not accustomed to the shortcuts. Find someone with a gentle yet critical eye who can find the areas of one-dimension. The areas where the writer is not serving the reader.

Why would this be as important to a writer than finding a reader or editor to ensure that the grammar is correct?

This reader is important in helping find where the writer fails to connect--in depth--with the reader. A reader shouldn't be left at the end of a chapter wondering why read more? Or with the worst question, "So what? Why should I care?" When a writer writing about personal issues fails to connect with the reader--leaving the reader with more questions than answers--the writing may be interesting, but it has delivered a one-dimensional character instead of a full-formed, layered journey of self-discovery.

What reading have you done lately that has changed the way you view your writing or revision process?

Elizabeth King Humphrey is a writer and editor living along the North Carolina coast.


Sioux Roslawski said...


Great post, as always. Barry Lane calls what you're writing about as "exploding the moment." I think there are even little videos of him online talking about writing strategies.

I agree. We sometimes skirt around the power of an event or a realization or an emotion. Dwelling on it momentariy with a similie or some sensory details, or slowing it down to "slow motion" the moment (just like a movie director) will make better impact and help the reader connect with whatever's going on.

I try to get my students to see their stories on a movie screen. What would they see? What sounds would they hear? What sorts of things would be going on with the characters' facial expressions and body movements?

Again, thanks for a wonderful post. We ALL need occasional reminders.

allena said...

Can you paragraph break this please? I keep losing my spot. Don't get me wrong, Elizabeth, you're one of my fave Muffin contributors. Which is why I want to finish reading this.

Amber Polo said...

Great post. I think you are also touching on "authentic" writing. Authors sometimes shy away from the "truth" or want themselves to be better (or worse) in print. Readers will know, even if they don't know they know. You know?

Elizabeth King Humphrey said...


Thanks for the reminder. I've returned and added the spaces.

Amber and Sioux,

Yes, it is so important! Great to know about some other techniques to capture and expand those vital moments.

Thank you for visiting,


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