5 Writing Tips for More Readable Personal Stories
Here are five simple tips for making your personal stories, family-history writing and scrapbook journaling more interesting and inviting. Because interesting is always better than boring. That's my personal motto.
"Interesting! Of course! People LOVE interesting writing!"
—Elaine from Seinfeld, circa 1997
1. Keep it short.
In writing, as in conversation, audiences appreciate it when you get to the point quickly. If you must meander, make sure there's a purpose for every detour—it should either add important context, personality, or humor to your story. Just because a thought came to mind while you were writing doesn't mean it belongs where you put it. After you've written an initial draft, read through your story again with your finger poised over the delete key. Here are the three easiest places to cut when brevity is the goal:
Remove repetitive sentences. Look for the same idea expressed two or more times in close proximity and cut out the extras.
Omit filler phrases. Get rid of those introductory phrases that plant themselves in your story while you're composing but serve no other purpose than to take up space. Think of them as weeds that are choking out your flowers. Examples are "now that I think about it" or "and the truth is" or "believe it or not."
Delete unnecessary words. Cut out half of your adjectives, especially vague and overused adjectives like "very" and "so."
2. Embrace lists.
When you're drowning in facts, switch to a list. I use bulleted lists on scrapbook pages, on my blog, in all forms of my professional writing, and even in my personal, handwritten journal. One clue that a bulleted list is needed is when you find yourself struggling to connect a bunch of random or disparate facts together in paragraph form—and you start getting bored along the way. A short bulleted list also makes your ideas friendlier to read. See #1 above.
Lists aren't just for facts, though. They can also be handy devices for framing a story. For example:
"10 Things I Didn't Know About My Grandfather While He Was Alive"
"What I Remember About My Grandma's House"
"A Few Quick Updates About My Life" (I use this one in my journal all the time)
"Things I Miss Most About My Mom"
"12 Life Lessons Learned from Great-Grandma Milliken"
"10 Things I Love About My Life Right Now" (great for a scrapbook page)
"Highlights from Our Hawaiian Vacation" (also great for a scrapbook page)
What do you know, I just used another list.
3. Pick an angle.
It can be tempting to include everything you know or remember about a particular event or story, but the most interesting stories are told within a framework or from a specific angle. Imagine you're writing or scrapbooking about a birthday party. You could share everything about it, encyclopedia-entry style (who was there, what was on the menu, what gifts were given, etc.). Or you could approach it from a unique direction by asking yourself questions that will help you zero in on the most interesting and story-worthy aspects of that event.
Here are a few sample questions to ask yourself:
Why am I really making this page or telling this story?
How was this birthday party different from every other birthday party I've attended?
How was it the same?
Who was the most interesting or unexpected guest?
What was the most unexpected gift?
How do these photos make me feel?
You may discover that your real purpose is to share your thoughts about how quickly your children are growing up, or realize this was the last birthday party grandma attended before she passed away, or notice a tradition that you've carried on from your own childhood...and suddenly you have a more interesting angle for your story.
For an example of a family-history story told from a strong angle, read all about Mona's Mustard Sauce, a story that I also attached to my grandmother's profile in my family tree on FamilySearch.org.
4. Be authentic.
Remember that what you say is more important than how you say it. Which would you rather read: a fascinating story told imperfectly? Or a series of grammatically pure, impeccably written sentences that say nothing in particular?
Don't let your insecurities about your spelling, grammar, punctuation or vocabulary hold you back from sharing the stories of your life. Just write the way you speak—it's important to let your personality shine through—and make an effort to polish it a little bit to make it friendlier for others to read. Because no one wants an unfiltered glimpse into the inner workings of your mind. (Wink.)
The core of authenticity, though, is a willingness to be real. Tell the truth of your life, not the glossy version that you wish were the truth. You've struggled and triumphed, you've learned and grown. You have nuggets of wisdom to share. So share them.
5. Take your time—some of the time.
Remember that not every page or story must be a literary masterpiece. Certain types of stories and pages can be told quickly using lists of facts, photo captions, free-form writing and more. But when you uncover a story that means a lot to you, spend some time writing and revising it. Shape it and hone it until it truly reflects the vision of the story that exists in your mind.
Not every scrapbook page can or should include long, paragraph-style journaling. Not every story you write for your family history must be detailed or in-depth. Make most of your stories "good enough" and save your journaling genius for the pages and stories that matter most to you. Your care and attention will shine through, and those who encounter your work down the road will be able to tell: this is a story that matters.
Also read Elizabeth Dillow's five excellent tips for making your scrapbook journaling more interesting on her blog, A Swoop and a Dart.