The single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me.


image via Tutordoctorofwny

I had the good fortune to take a poetry writing workshop with Dr. David C. Berry in the fall of 1992. During the first meeting of that course, he laid out the first stanza of Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” on the chalkboard like so:

Nibblin’ on sponge cake

Watching the sun bake

All of those tourists covered with oil,

Strumming my six-string

on my front porch swing,

Smell those shrimp, they’re beginning to boil . . .

Then he explained (persuasively) that the reason “Margaritaville” is fun, and memorable, and popular, is because the stanzas contain an image in every line (and even the chorus has that “lost shaker of salt”). I’ve put the images in bold; he underlined them.

He told us we needed to do only 3 things to get an A in his workshop:

  1. Turn in a poem per week;
  2. Give the other poets in the course civil and constructive comments on their work; and
  3. Include an image in every line until he told us we could break that rule.

I followed the rules because I wanted the A, and I wanted to improve my writing. Sixteen weeks later, the poems I was producing were more mature, more sophisticated, and above all (judging from the comments I was getting on them) more readable.

If your goal is to give your readers an experience – to transport them, or to engage their emotions – it helps to give them things to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell.

I am not saying you should use this like a formula for everything you write; but I am saying that if you spend one day a week for a couple of months focusing specifically on improving the use of sensory images in your work, your writing is sure to improve.

If you already know this trick and see it as basic stuff, I do hope you are sharing it.  🙂

About Gene'O

Compulsive writer, amateur photographer, and blogaholic. Also an evil genius.

6 thoughts on “The single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me.

  1. I didn’t even hear this lecture, but I’ve remembered it since you told me about it years ago. My pet piece of advice was actually from Dr. Lares, and it went something like this-“don’t get it right; get it written-then get it right.” I can’t count the number of students in the writing center that I’ve given the same advice to.:)


    • Gene'O says:

      This is one of the best posts I’ve ever written. I dug it up tonight because I wanted to link to it. I should work a revised version of it into A to Z, on the “I” day, I think. Sad that I posted it ten days after we started, and almost no one saw it.

      I’m thinking I might have a lot of A to Z stuff mostly written already, and just don’t realize it.


      • Diana says:

        Yes. I think you’re right. I’m thinking that by the summer I’ll have enough content to do more reblogging of older stuff from when we didn’t have many followers. We wrote some good stuff back then.


        • Gene'O says:

          Yeah. I’m also wondering if I want to calculate how much Facebook content to make a legitimate attempt to grow the fanpages, and spend one of the summer intercessions repackaging. It’s a simple formula:

          A good Image, A blurb, and a link. 270 of those gets you three updates a day for three months, and they can be recycled. They can probably be recycled more often than every 3 months. Don’t know about PTM, but my two blogs combined have close to 400 posts.So maybe enough non-time sensitive content to give that a go by the end of May.

          And once I get through this complete year with the conference trip and christmas, I’m going to be ready to start thinking about spending $60 a month out of my own pocket for paid link placement somewhere.


  2. […] is another good example of what I was said this morning at The Writing Catalog about the importance of […]


  3. […] If you want to learn something about the importance of concrete images and significant detail in storytelling, these lyrics are a good text to study. Almost as good as Margaritaville. […]


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