Write to Express, Not to Impress

The answer to everything: “Write to express, not to impress.” That’s it. A six-word powerhouse. It’s the universal answer to just about everything a writer asks. Go ahead, give it a try.

(What writing credentials will impress an agent or editor?)

1) How do I get past writer’s block? Write to express, not to impress. I don’t believe in writer’s block. The inability to move forward on a work is my subconscious telling me something important. By focusing on what I want to express, I look more deeply at my subject and I discover that I don’t yet know enough about my characters, setting, or the scene’s motivation to write with confidence. So off I go to research and get what I need. Or the phrase helps me realize I truly don’t have anything important to say here and that this scene is unnecessary or should simply be a brief transition to the next scene where something important does happen.

GIVEAWAY: Bernadette is excited to give away a free copy of either of her novels to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Jean Voelker won.)

 

     

Guest column by Bernadette Pajer, author of the Professor Bradshaw
Mystery series, which includes A SPARK OF DEATH (July 2011) and
FATAL INDUCTION (May 2012). A graduate of the University of Washington,
Pajer is a proud member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime,
Northwest Science Writers, and the Seattle7Writers.org. Visit Bernadette
Pajer on the web at: www.bernadettepajer.com

 

 

2) How do I find my voice? Write to express, not to impress. It’s difficult to hear your own voice, but you have one. It’s there in your word choice, in your syntax, in your attitude. Trust that your voice is there, and then don’t think about it. Focus on expressing what it is you really want to say, and like your shadow, your voice will be there. To find characters’ voices, step inside their shoes and as them, write to express what they’re experiencing. See the world as they do and seek ways of expressing their reactions and attitudes.

3) How do I get an agent? Attract an editor? Write to express, not to impress. Agents and editors are people, too. People who love books, who begin reading each query letter, each synopsis, each manuscript, eager to find a story that pulls them in. They’re not looking to be dazzled by clever sentences and witty zingers, they’re looking to make a genuine connection with what you have to say. When you write a query or synopsis with the goal of expressing your story, you look deeper. You seek words that get to the heart of your characters and the journey of your story.

(Adapt your book into a movie script — here’s how.)

The surest way to frustration and shallow writing is to write to impress. If you sit down and tell yourself it has to be good, you have to wow an agent with your query, or write a scene that will stun readers, then you won’t be able to write a darn thing, or what you write won’t have depth. It’s a trap we all fall into because, of course, we do want to impress agents and editors and readers. Our hopes and dreams are tied to the reaction of those who read our work. But when you write to impress, your focus is on the reader, not the story. When you write to express, you look inward, deeply inside yourself, your story, your characters. What emerges might or might not be lovely prose (and if not, that’s what revision is for), but it will be strong, and clear, and have the potential to make a genuine connection.

GIVEAWAY: Bernadette is excited to give away a free copy of either of her novels to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Jean Voelker won.)

 


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45 thoughts on “Write to Express, Not to Impress

  1. writingitout

    Wonderful advice. I never thought about any of those situations like that. I especially like it for the agent and editor queries and pitches. Now that I look at it, it makes total sense. Whenever I write just for me, the words flow wonderfully, but when I try to really think “How do I draw them in, what magnificent words/sentences can I use to wow them?” I find it difficult to even write a paragraph. I’ll definitely be keeping this simple advice in mind while I work.

  2. tlaulusa

    I’m just a beginning writer so hesitate to comment….I’ve found when I am free writing I come closest to expressing with little thought to impressing. There are actually things I free write that I don’t mind rereading.

  3. Di

    Exactly. My “writer’s block” is because I haven’t delved deep enough into my protagonist’s head. Things are finally starting to gel as I explore her psyche and how she reveals herself to others. The query/synopsis creation still scares me, but once my WIP’s objective becomes crystal clear, it should be a lot easier. I hope!

  4. Doropatent

    I love your advice, Bernadette–it should be right up there with “Show, don’t tell!” I think such pithy phrases can really help writers keep on track. I teach as well as write, and I’m going to “adopt” your phrase, with credit of course, for the next time I do a class!

  5. Imaginalchemy

    This is always the issue I face, finding that balance between genuinely expressing myself in my writing and also telling a story that will catch an agent’s/publisher’s eye. But you’re right, I get the most stubborn writer’s blocks whenever I’m writing something solely because I think it is what others want to read. Thanks for your insight!

  6. Becky

    Thank you for the advice! I am just starting out and have been reading a lot of how to articles and how to books in general on writing and this makes a lot of sense. I got some great advice from my roommate. I told her that I wasn’t sure what to do so I had to do all this research on writing. She is not a writer but a very avid reader. She told me that I needed to quit reading and WRITE! Great advice..you would think it would be obvious, but I think sometimes we need to hear the obvious from others. Thank you again for your help.

  7. WordWeaver

    It’s funny that you say that because most of the things I’ve read on “good writing” tell you not to do that but to write TO a particular audience. Much of my writing is an expression of something and I always got good response to them over the years (ok, most of that was from friends and family before I published anything, so I guess I should take that as a sign)l Anyway, thank you for the encouragement that I’m not doing it “wrong.”

    1. Bernadette Pajer

      Writing advice can get confusing and seem to conflict. It is important to have a sense of who your audience is — as you write to express yourself. Just as you speak differently to your children than you do your friends, and different to your friends than you do your mother, so we write somewhat differently for different readers. But that doesn’t mean we are writing to impress those readers — we are still writing to express to them what we truly want to convey. You likely instinctively alter your tone to fit your audience, and yes, it’s my opinion that if you’ve done so as a form of expression, you’ve been doing it right!

  8. Bernadette Pajer

    Thanks to everyone for your comments! I would like to reply to each one of you, but alas, this site is beginning to think I’m a spammer for posting so many replies ; ) I’m delighted that you’ve found inspiration in the expression (the mantra!) Write to Express, Not to Impress. I say it to myself several times a day as I struggle with this challenging but rewarding craft. One of the aspects I love most about writing is that we writers don’t compete against each other. Have you ever heard a reader say, “Oh, I read a good book last week, I don’t need another one.” Never! Each of us as writers has a unique voice that will speak to a unique set of readers who will buy and borrow as many books as they can find that appeal to them. Readers are out there now just waiting for our books. We’d better get busy! Happy writing, everyone!

  9. HuffmanHanni

    This was a great article to read as a brand-new writer. The biggest reason why I started writing because I have been frustrated my whole life with not having a ‘voice’ in the world. Writing is a way for me to express myself and create something but at the same time, I’ve been struggling a lot with ‘Will someone else like this? Is this idea good enough for others?’ This has been a nice and important wake-up call to remind me why it is that I write. Yes, I would love at some point to be published but I need to keep in mind that not everything I write needs to be for that goal. Thank you for the reminder!

  10. bfornauf

    Thank you for the advice. Approaching agents and editors is scary when you express yourself in your writing – because the rejection seems like it will hurt that much more. But I like that you point out that this is what revision is for – I love leaving my writing for a few days, and then coming back with a fresh perspective. It’s become my favorite part of the process!
    -Beth

  11. Shan

    My pencil has been on the shelf for at least a decade. Just yesterday I realized, if I am going to struggle with this life, then I am going to do it doing what I love the most!

    I do thank you for your tip. I find the same to be true in conversation, it is more wise to be quiet, listen, observe and learn than it is to speak of which you know nothing about.

    I have figured out what I want to be when I grow up. Your advice was just what I needed to get started!

    Thank you!

    Shan

  12. Silkienne

    I like that comment — Write to Express, not to Impress. I know I’ve found through the years that if I was not absolutely solid on who I was thinking as, where I was, and what I needed to convey, it did not matter how fancy the language was the scene just would not come out. When I have completed my research, built my world, and crafted the basics of the story, then everything else falls into place!

    This absolutely works for both fiction and non fiction!

    Thanks for putting it so concisely!

  13. writer5512

    As I am starting out with writing, it’s hard not to think about far into the future try to write something impressive quickly so that I can get my foot in the door. It’s hard to slow down and just think and write for myself. This is a good mantra that I might just have to adopt. Write to express, not to impress. I like it. Thank you.

    Sarah

  14. Ribulation

    Interesting how a tiny snippet or conversation can shed light on a particular sitution. Bernadette’s line: Focus on expressing what it is you really want to say, and like your shadow, your voice will be there — brought to mind for me, the Shadow of C.J. Jung’s theories. Jung believes that for every good thought we have, a corresponding or negative thought harbored in the Shadow aspect of the mind. Now, when a bad guy’s language or actions need to be expressed, I understand that it is really me expressing not just guessing.

  15. Scott M

    The commenter above, NewDawn, nails it by calling “write to express” a mantra. Thanks to NewDawn…and to you, Bernadette!

    Scott

    P.S. I love the idea of an electrical engineer (like me) channeling his inner Sherlock Holmes to solve a murder mystery. We’re not all nerds!

  16. JanalynVoigt

    Hi, Bernadette!

    It’s funny that you compare a writer’s voice to her shadow. I wrote a blog post comparing a writer searching for her voice to Peter Pan’s hunt for his own shadow. I said the same things as you about voice. Great minds… :o)

    I couldn’t agree with you more. When we genuinely express ourselves, we have more of a chance of impressing others.

      1. JanalynVoigt

        Bernadette, very true. I thought, after posting my remark that I should have put the word “anyway” at the end of that sentence. Impressing shouldn’t be our goal at all.

  17. Jeanne Voelker

    I’ve found that voice is simply the way my writing sounds after I have done my utmost best to convey story, setting, and mood.

    1. Bernadette Pajer

      Thanks! It feels great to have the Professor’s second story out there (officially released May 1st). I’m busy writing the third in the series, A CAPACITY FOR MURDER. Or rather, I should be. I’m having too much fun reading and replying to comments!

  18. NewDawn

    I really value this article. Write to express – not to impress. I’ve adopted it as my mantra when I sit down to write. And it really works! I gave it a test and compared the results. I struggled with the prologue to my novel. I was trying to impress. You know the drill: description, drama, an amazing hook to capture the agent and the reader. That was my focus. The results were stilted combined with flowery description of the rain forest. Ugh. I left it alone for a couple of days and then sat down to rewrite it. I began only after I sipped some coffee and looked out at the big oak tree, slowly repeating the words “express not impress”. Know what happened? The character’s love of the rain forest and the creatures that live in it came through! I ran it past a couple in my group and they picked up on it. So, thank you for sharing!!

  19. Toxxikk

    Even if I don’t think I’m trying to “write to impress,” I often find myself asking, “Is this good enough?” That kind of thinking inevitably leads to writer’s block, though I sometimes forget I’m doing it. Thank you for the reminder!

    1. Bernadette Pajer

      You’re welcome! That little critic likes to sit on our shoulders and annoy us as we work. The more you seek to write from expression, trust yourself as a writer, and trust that your reader will bring eagerness and experience to their reading, the easier it is to knock that critic to the floor.

  20. havingfun

    I learned that when I wrote a lot of poetry. Poetry writing (and thinking) grounded me and made me think more about the thinking and feeling part of writing than the impressing part. We have to remember to write from inside looking out..not the opposite.

    1. Bernadette Pajer

      What a great tip! I’ve never been good at poetry, which is probably why it took me so long to discover the idea that I should write to express, not to impress. You have reminded me that I should dabble with poetry every-so-often, not with the goal of getting it published, but simply as a wonderful exercise in expression and detail. Thank you!

  21. leafriverwriter

    Bernadette’s words ring true for me and I wholeheartedly agree. What I was especially impressed with was the picture of Bernadette holding her book. The pure passion that exudes from her makes me want to read all of her writing and meet her at a conference somewhere…anywhere. She looks like she would be a great speaker–full of joy and enthusiasm. My dream is to have a picture on a jacket cover one day that says that much about me.

    1. Bernadette Pajer

      Thank you! That photo was taken by Mary Levin, a University of Washington photographer, on the steps of Denny Hall, where my sleuth, Professor Bradshaw, teaches. I’ve completely surprised myself at how much I enjoy going out into the world, meeting readers and writers and all sorts of amazing people. I’d always considered myself a homebody, but it turns out I’m a people person. Keep writing to express, keep honing your craft, keep sharing your work. You’ll get that book and the jacket cover photo to go with it!

    1. Bernadette Pajer

      I have another tip to avoid overwriting — it’s to trust your readers. Readers come to the page eager and willing to go on a journey. They bring experience, memories, intelligence, and imaginations. If you tell them too much, they don’t get to actively participate in your story. If you give them too little, they feel ungrounded and lost. If you give them just the right amount (like Baby Bear’s bowl of porridge), readers’ imaginations are triggered. They become more curious, make guesses, feel clever for grasping the subtext, recall past experiences, and the story becomes part of them. Easier said then done, of course, and I struggle to find that balance myself. But that is one of the many challenges of writing!

      1. thewritingblues

        “I have another tip to avoid overwriting — it’s to trust your readers.” Yes, that’s something I struggle with: giving enough information so the reader stays interested but not so much that they feel like I’m insulting them.

        Thanks for a great article, Bernadette, and I’ll have to check your book out for sure now that I know the MC teaches in the hall where I used to have a class. 😉

    1. Bernadette Pajer

      Nice to “meet” you, too! It took me a long time to figure out this rather simple idea. In the first years that I wrote, I knew that I enjoyed the process most, and that the writing was most powerful, when I fully escaped into what I was creating. But then my hopes and dreams and fears would rear their ugly heads and I would try to assure them all would be well by trying to write impressively. It came as such a relief to know that I need only be me when I sit down to write. I must, of course, keep studying the craft of writing, but the part that speaks to readers, that can come simply by letting go and diving in.

  22. covellcy

    Recently, I watched the movie, Factotum: This drama centers on Hank Chinaski, the fictional alter-ego of “Factotum” author Charles Bukowski, who wanders around Los Angeles, CA trying to live off jobs which don’t interfere with his primary interest, which is writing. Along the way, he fends off the distractions offered by women, drinking and gambling.

    Charles’ father repeatedly challenges his son’s lack of work with regard to writing. Charles states that it is his way of expressing himself. Even though I write to express, I did not realize the strength of the words and their message until he stated it out loud. The words gave a rubber stamp of approval across my forehead, especially when I am challenged with my writing.

    I recently entered the More.com contest which challenged me to write why I am beautiful in 500 characters (not words). Spaces do take up a lot of character. I wrote about the losses of life and the impact they had and concluded that if it wasn’t for the strength of others to fill in my cracked cement with their mortar, I could not be the beautiful person that I am today. My youngest son was not moved and asked me why and then quickly said never mind. He then told me that he would never have put those together for others to read. I was at a loss for words.

    In closing, my essay was an expression and not an impression for More.com. My words came from my heart and I stand by them.
    Thank you for affirming my freedom of expression. I’m ok, you’re ok… another great expression of words put into writing.

    1. Bernadette Pajer

      You’re welcome! When we write, it’s not important to move every reader. I think it’s important to write honestly, to express, and then to edit and revise in a way that doesn’t dilute that expression, but simply makes it more accessible to the reader. While your son might not have been moved by what you wrote, another reader, likely one who has had similar life experiences, probably was, and was grateful to feel understood.

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