Writers Talk About Writing
Is Your Helicopter the Right Height?
When I talk to people about how to improve their writing, I often begin by suggesting we go for a metaphorical helicopter ride. We start by walking toward the whirling beast...Whappa, whappa, whappa. Our hair is whipped 'round our faces and we duck to protect our precious necks as we walk under the madly spinning blades. We scramble inside the door, stow our briefcases under the seats and pop on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Phew!
As soon as the pilot takes off, we look out the window to see houses and cars and treetops. At first, they're life-sized. But as the helicopter starts to rise, they become smaller and smaller. Soon the cars are the size of Tinker Toys and the houses look like something from a doll's village.
As the helicopter continues its ascent, the cars become tiny specks -- like little black bugs -- and the houses, mere dots. But suddenly, as if by way of compensation, we start to see patterns. The landscape stretches out below us like a quilt. There are big patches of green -- forest -- and wide swaths of yellow -- fields of grain. Look! Over there, there's a lake.
"Okay, okay, but what's this got to do with writing?" you wonder.
Forgive the long analogy and let me get to my point. When you write, you are like that helicopter pilot. And what you see from your "window" is what you need to describe to your readers.
Remember: you're in the pilot's seat, so you have to decide. Are you going to hover low, focusing on details like individual trees and houses, or are you going to hover high, looking at the patterns in the landscape (or, in that dreadful '80s phrase, "the big picture")?
When I have a hard time understanding a piece of writing, I often discover the author is dipsy-doodling in "height." He or she is going from big ideas to small without giving me adequate warning.
Now I don't want to suggest that a pilot or a writer has to pick one spot and spend the entire trip hovering there! As you know, pilots change altitude all the time. But, except in emergencies, they don't do it so quickly that you get a heaving stomach.
Similarly, when you're writing, you should think like a skilled pilot and always be conscious of your altitude. Is your plan to discuss large concepts or little details? Be aware of what you're doing! And when you want to change altitude, give your readers some warning.
This article, for example, is mainly a conceptual one -- that is to say, my helicopter is hovering high. (But right now I'm going to dip down -- slowly and carefully.) Here are some of the transitional or warning phrases you might want to use if you plan to drop in height, mid-story. You might say, "here" (as I just did at the beginning of the last sentence), "specifically," "for instance," "for example," or "to illustrate."
Always being conscious of your "helicopter height" is a good way to ensure your readers enjoy the ride you're taking them on, and don't get queasy bellies along the way.
A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach who helps people writer better, faster. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach.