Writing Tips for People Who Can’t Write

Some simple writing tips to blast through writer’s block and help people get the words out running in their head.

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When I was in school, I wanted to be a novelist. I wanted to write stories, crazy stories, and I daydreamed all the time. In school, I was able to express myself rather well, at least my English teachers told me I could. My writing style was never classical, but I would find some innovative tidbit and then I would interpret it through my wild imagination. I even held on to some of my favorite papers from high school and college.

But somewhere down the line, I lost my writing touch. My first job out of college was working at an advertising agency. I moved up fast and spent my days as an account executive. I was talking on the phone ALL DAY LONG.

That job made me LOATHE talking. Seriously. Loathe it. I still avoid the phone today. Many times, my husband has to pull the words out of my mouth. But then again, he talks way more than I ever could!

For my inability to complete a thought coherently, I blame my children. All you mothers out there know what I mean. Years of being interrupted, sleep deprived and overall bouncing all over the place has taken it’s toll on my communication skills and my lack of train of thought.

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“But you write a blog?”

Yeah, you see my conundrum?

Creating recipes is easy. Photographing my creations is my play time. But then I sit down in front of the computer, tired, frustrated and with a completely empty mind.

So when I found out that Dianne Jacob was going to speak at IFBC this year, I knew I had to attend her seminar. I read her blog all the time. Her book, Will Write for Food, was instrumental in the development of my olive oil cookbook. My friends Liz and Lisa took Dianne’s workshop in San Diego and felt their writing had transformed afterwards.

I wanted to transform, too.

If you have never had the opportunity to take one of Dianne’s workshops, I strongly recommend it. At IFBC, her talk was only an hour, but the time flew by fast, even for me, the non-writer.

Dianne opened the seminar with this:

Adjectives are the crack of food writing.”

Okay, mind blown. YES! YES! YES! Dianne continued on with her writing tips.

We were encouraged to go beyond “delicious” and “yummy” and use powerful action verbs.

Don’t just describe the food, but evoke imagery and create a mood.

When adjectives don’t come to you, use metaphors, analogies and similes.

Try using contrast to highlight your subject.

Use your other senses, besides taste, to describe food.

Include memories, a family story to convey your message to your readers.

I sat in class and took all of these tips to heart. Then we had the writing exercises. Dianne instructed us to write for 10 minutes about the lunch we ate that day. I was sitting with my lunch companions, and we three ate the same meal – one of the best Ciopinnos I ever ate. Ever.

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But, our writings were light years apart. I admit it. I was jealous of how easy writing came to people. I sulked in my chair as I heard volunteers read their stories. (click here to read Lisa’s beautiful story about our ciopinno lunch!)

For the next exercise, Dianne handed out some snacks from the swag fest of the other night. Some tables received cookies. At my table, we each got an almond. A dry, bland, gag-enducing almond. I threw my pen down. I couldn’t do the exercise. I was not inspired. I fiddled in my chair, doodled, wrote some garbage and pulled out my phone. I took a picture of the those blasted almonds.

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“Dammit,” I told myself, “I’m a visual person. I can’t write.

Volunteers read their mind-blowing, 10-minute James Beard worthy narratives. I sat and stewed.

Our seminar was winding down and the final questions were being asked. Exasperated, I raised my hand.

Somehow, I stammered out my problem, which I cannot quote, because again, words were not coming to me easily. But I managed to ask, in a roundabout way,

What advice do you have for a visual person who sits down in front of a blank computer screen and can not find the words to write?”

The following advice came from Dianne and the audience.

Some like to speak when they “write” and use software to transcribe their words. I was also encouraged to speak my thoughts out loud, as listening to your words gives you different insight.

Another suggestion was to write bullet points while developing and photographing a recipe and to use those notes when writing a post. Brilliant!

Dianne encouraged us to write that “shitty first draft.” The idea is that you start the process and throw out the work. Even return to it the next day. You second draft will be easier to write and much improved.

I was also advised to work on small writing exercises every day. Similar to what we did in class, write about lunch, my kids, my favorite shoes, anything subject at all, but to use the tools that Dianne suggested every day.

The last advice was really motivational – the inner critic. I had mentioned that I could not describe my amazing lunch the way that my friend, Lisa, did that day. Ooooh. That whole comparing oneself to others. The inner critic can be helpful if you strive to do better. But when it stifles you from moving forward, then the inner critic needs to be shoved aside and ignored. Stop worrying about what the other guy or gal is writing and just write.

After class, many people came up to me and thanked me for asking my question. Somehow, I inspired others. Quite honestly, I was embarrassed with my problem and question. But I soon learned that I was not alone. And that made writing less daunting in my eyes.

It took me over a week to write this post. I took all of these writing tips to heart and knew I would share it with all of you. I hope it helps you blast through your writer’s block and pull out the words that are running rampant in your head.

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21 Responses to Writing Tips for People Who Can’t Write

  1. Liz at #

    I am SO bummed I missed this session. Thanks so much for taking the time to do a recap, Laura! It was wonderful to finally meet you in person, too 🙂

    • Liz, it was a great session. I’m happy we finally got to meet, but wish we had time to really chat. Next conference!

  2. I attended one of Dianne’s sessions on food writing in Adelaide a couple of years ago. We should do our posts together. Words just flow into my head but move that dish over an inch or so to make a much better photo? I’m often lost.

    It boils down to practice. I’ve had way more practice writing than I have with a camera. I suspect it is the same for you.

    Love the bullet point ideas. I once wrote a book based upon that idea. It was for a course in writing I was taking. We were given 8 words per chapter and we had to write 8 paragraphs. It was so much easier knowing where it was all headed.

    Once it was finished, last class was to write enough keywords to fill a book.

    Loved this post.

    • Yes, I’m finding that in the blogging world you are either stronger with the writing or the photography. Those that are talented and excel at both are jewels. I’ll collaborate with you anytime, anywhere!

  3. I’m all about the shitty first draft 🙂 But am going to try the bullet point tip. Those almonds made me feel like a nomad in search of water!

    • I wonder what would have happened if we had gotten those spicy ginger snaps???!

  4. I remember sitting in that session and being dumbfounded when you asked that question – because I thoroughly enjoy everything you write. But it did cause me to sit back and realize that just because somebody is good at something (yes, you are), that doesn’t mean it comes easy. Loved this recap :).

    • You are so sweet! I am humbled that you like my writing. I do struggle with it, though. Over the years I have fallen out of practice, I suppose.

  5. Really well written! Fantastic article, writing for me seems to be the fun part it’s the pictures I loathe. Loved this piece. Afarin Laura Jan!

  6. I think you’re a great writer – this post is evidence, in my opinion 🙂 Really well written and lots of great advice and tips.

    One thing I notice about my own writing is I write better when (1) there’s a deadline (like Dianne’s 10-minute deadline) and (2) I have an audience (I know from experience that Dianne will ask for volunteers). My day-to-day writing could benefit from both tools, even if they’re self imposed.

    You have a really strong conversational tone and your voice is personal, like you’re talking with a friend …. part of what makes YOUR writing very appealing.

    xoxo

    • You like that 10-minute deadline? That made it more stressful for me! Promise me you’ll post what you wrote about the ciopinno on your blog. I loved it!

  7. Laura, you really make me laugh – your posts are so relaxed and read like you are chatting with your readers. Never change! Your talent is huge, girlfriend….

    • Thank you, Liz. I’m glad you enjoy my writings, which is a huge compliment! I envy your wit and I love reading your posts!

  8. Your question struck a chord at the conference, resonating through the crowd. Thanks for posting your reflection on the same theme – it is a helpful review of that all-too-brief session.

    • Ah, thank you! AFter listening to all the volunteers read their amazing stories, I assumed everyone was just as good. I’m relieved that I am not the only one who struggles with words.

  9. Alice at #

    I was in this session with you and my advice is to just start in the middle! I keep little notes in the column of the recipe I’m developing on things it reminds me of or descriptive words that come to mind while Im stuck slowly browning onions for an hour… that helps to inspire my writing a day or two later when I go to start writing that post. It might help you too 🙂 There are lots of fun things to try, but also just exercising writing in general can help.

    LiveJournal.com has things called “Friday Fivers’ and its just a list of five questions to review your week that can help just get you writing. if only a couple sentences its still good practice. also – they have writing prompts each day. WordPress also does this on several writing pages. those might be places to look for inspiration to keep writing and working on it!

    Glad to have bumped into you here after seeing you at Camp earlier in the year!

    • Wow! Great advice! I feel more inspired than ever to write thanks to the generosity of everyone in that class! It was so great seeing you, too!

  10. I’m not a great writer, but can produce readable (and sometimes even interesting) stuff. You just have to apply seat of pants to seat of chair and write. And don’t worry if what you do is awful — of course it is! But you can’t start rewriting until you have something to work with. Spend a little time of that something that’s awful, and before long it’s not so bad. Spend more time and it’s approaching good. All good writing is rewriting, IMO — it just takes patience. And loads of practice.

  11. Excellent post. Thank you so much for the summary. I am a Diane Jacobs fan, but was not able to attend the full session.

  12. Dear Laura,

    Thank you for writing this post. I would have never known that you had such a struggle with writing since it is not the least bit apparent. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and I love your writing style. It is so easy to read, warm and friendly. I always feel like I’m having a conversation with a friend when I’m reading your posts. I really appreciate your willingness to be so honest and genuine with your writing struggle. It’s exactly the encouragement I’ve been needing. This is the same problem I’ve been struggling with for years. Like you, I’m a visual person, so creating recipes and taking lovely photos of the food are a breeze for me. But the writing, not so much. The crazy critic in my head has kept me from posting for fear of not being as good as all the amazing bloggers out there, you included. So to hear that you have the same struggles, yet you consistently put out wonderful blog posts, is such an inspiration and encouragement to me. It’s embarrassing to admit how much the crazy critic has hindered me, but I have countless blog posts that have pictures and recipes for, but no written content. This post was the kick in the butt I needed to start writing. Thank you!

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