Lesson 1: Tell the Truth

Posted: April 15, 2010 in General Writing Tips

For the next few blog entries, I’ll explore foundations that make writing strong. These are the tips and concepts I consider absolutely essential for writing that rocks.

Lesson 1 is, Tell the truth. This simple advice improves all kinds of writing.

Truth in fiction. We’ve all scoffed as the lone young girl descends, unarmed, into the unlit basement where she thinks a killer might lurk. Why the heck is she going down there at all — much less, without turning on the lights? No other reason except the writer needs her to, in order to get to his “big shocking finale.” Resist the impulse to force cool scenes into your fiction, if no actual human would behave the way you are making your characters behave. And especially if your story contains a “message,” triple-check to make sure you are selling truth, not trumped up circumstances artificially arranged to prove a point.

I know that scene is funny, but if it doesn't seem true, we won't go there with you.

Truth in marketing. When you write ads or sales collateral, you feel pressured to hype the product or the company. During one of my first brochure projects, I wrote that a security product for banks was “an exciting innovation.” When my boss reviewed the text, he snorted and tossed the paper back to me, saying, “These guys haven’t been excited about anything in 20 years. Re-write it.” Readers sense when you overstate the merits of a product. You break their trust and then they don’t believe anything you say, no matter how expertly crafted. Powerful marketing copy should work like your resume: Nothing in your copy should fail a fact check. Tell the truth; put it in the best possible light. Truth simply rings with more power than hype can ever muster.

Truth in description. Ann Lamott advises writers to pretend they are looking at the world through a one-inch square picture frame. You can only see a tiny slice of life through it. But that limited scope helps you. Write and rewrite until you’ve really seen that one-inch view and you have it exactly right. Revise until your instincts say, yes, what I’ve written is really how it is. Then move on to the next inch, and get that inch right. This discipline also helps you go beyond the cliches that initially spring to mind, so you express lifelike, telling detail. In these tiny increments, you can build a powerful piece.

During the creative writing process, it’s easy to get lost. You might sense that a piece isn’t working, but you don’t know what is wrong with it. I often find that asking the hard question reveals what to fix: “Is what I have written true?”

  1. […] it’s tempting to weave together standard marketing cliches. Remember that Lesson 1 is tell the truth. Did you just write that your product “does everything”? Bullshit. Your product is the […]

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