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Jo-Anne Richards

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Writing Secrets: You’re the doorman, not the bouncer

I once had a journalism student (If you’re out there reading this P, you’ll recognise your younger, idealistic self), who set out to write a feature about young women who were forced into prostitution after trying to escape desperate circumstances.

He was (and still is) a good writer, but when he gave me a draft, I advised him to start all over again. It consisted of this kind of thing: I climbed the stairs, the smell of excrement and boiled cabbage filling me with nausea. I was filled with horror when I saw Nadia’s bruised face. Tears rose and threatened to spill. I could hardly speak…

This is a classic case of a narrator standing in the way, blocking our view of his subject. Much as we might crane our necks to see past him, we can’t see Nadia at all. All we can see is P’s nausea, his feelings of horror, his tears and emotion.

Your job, as a writer, is not to tell us about how something makes you feel. It is to make us experience those feelings ourselves. We want to get to know Nadia, see, hear and feel what her story does to us. We want to get a lump in our throats. P should be standing aside, showing her to us, giving us access to her, her environment, and her story, so that we’re hardly aware of him at all.

He was so shocked himself that he forgot this.

This has lessons for fiction as well as non-fiction. Don’t stand in front of what you’re writing about. Don’t interpret it for us. Stand subtly aside so that we can see your subjects. Show us the outward manifestations, so that we can interpret their emotions for ourselves. We don’t want you to tell us what those emotions are, or what and how they evoke emotions in you.

As a writer, you’re the doorman. Open the door, stand aside and let us enter into other people’s lives. You’re not the bouncer, standing firmly in front of it, blocking our view, yet telling us how exclusive it is inside.

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