Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Writing Lessons, in a New York Minute

New York, New York. It's my favorite city in the world, and I recently returned from a visit there accompanied by my husband and son, both first time visitors to the Big Apple. We had a blast.

We saw three Broadway shows, toured the UN, the Guggenheim, the Met and the MOMA (yes, my son is long-suffering) and walked the magnificent High Line in Chelsea.

And, believe it or not, I also managed to absorb five lessons in writing! Funnily enough, these lessons were delivered faster than a New York minute...

Lesson #1 - Don't feel obliged to go looking for more space. We stayed in a teeny tiny apartment (the kitchen was only a hallway) and our bedroom was so small I had to leap into bed every night thanks to the radiator at the foot of my side of the room. Our son got a pullout couch in the so-called living area (a cubicle that would feel spacious only to a telemarketer!) But guess what? While I wouldn't want to live in such small square footage, permanently, it was fine for our needs. All we did was eat breakfast there and crash at night.

Similarly, when you're writing, don't always think you need a big house. A mere 350 words may be enough to convey your point. At other times you may require 500 or even 750 words. But don't assume that bigger is always better. Be frugal. Use your words carefully — as if you were paying New York rental prices for each one.

Lesson #2 - Always remember context. On the evening we flew into New York, one of the flight attendants leaned over to show us the sights. Eventually, she asked us where we were from. When we told her Vancouver, she leapt back in mock horror. "What an expensive city!" she exclaimed. "Yes," my husband responded dryly. "Practically as pricey as Manhattan."  When you are writing, always consider your audience. Remember, they may have a different perspective and if you are trying to convince them of something, you need to understand their point of view.

Lesson #3 - Fit in as much as you can. At 2 p.m. one weekday afternoon, we experienced a subway crush unlike anything I've ever seen before. (Why? At that time of day? I never did find out.) We climbed into the car and all of us had to suck in our breaths before the doors would close. But we fit! Similarly, when you are writing you may feel overwhelmed by the facts and ideas you need to jam into a reasonably small article. Don't despair — just be determined to make it work. Suck in your breath, cut unnecessary words and figure out how you squeeze more ideas in there. Yes, you can do it!

Lesson #4 - Try again later. We didn't eat fancy meals while in New York but I had my heart set on one restaurant: Momofuku, in the Village. I'd read a profile of the chef in the New Yorker and desperately wanted to give the place a try. On the day we spent wandering through the Village we arrived at the restaurant's doors exactly when my 16-year-old son hit full caloric meltdown. Unfortunately, the restaurant wasn't going to open for another 30 minutes. I agreed to go elsewhere — but extracted a promise we would go back again the following evening. We did and my son described it as the best meal of his life. The message for writers is simple: If at first you don't succeed with a piece of writing, try try again.

Lesson #5 - Have a heart! The best thing about seeing the Broadway show The Addams Family (a mediocre musical with a sub-par plotline) was the chance to witness actor Nathan Lane in person. I'd only seen him in movies, where, to me, he comes across as unbearably hammy. But in person, he is brilliant. He pours himself into his performance and even the most cheerless melodies sound moving and the lamest dialogue, sincere and heartfelt. He exceeds the material in which he performs. Similarly, as a writer, you need to be passionate about what you are writing. The reader should feel as though you really care (and never that you're just being paid.)

New York, New York. I can hardly wait to go back — even if only for the writing lessons.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday February 9th 2011, 9:03 AM
Comment by: Kate (Chicago, IL)
Thanks for an upbeat, concise message! What a lovely shot in the arm at the beginning of the work day.
Wednesday February 9th 2011, 10:04 AM
Comment by: Sharon N.
Being an original New Yorker now working in Ontario this was a walk down memory lane of the things I've often took for granted! It was great to see New York through your eyes. Thank you!
Wednesday February 9th 2011, 6:37 PM
Comment by: MLou (Arlington, MA)
Dear Daphne:

Your Big Apple Writing Lesson reads like the parable of Loaves and Fishes:
The more columns you write, the quicker your wit and the tighter the fit of your word to its phrase.

I urge all VT readers to gift themselves with a subscription to your free newsletter.

With admiration and a smile,

Mary Lou Shields
Wednesday February 9th 2011, 8:23 PM
Comment by: Teresa M. (Tokyo Japan)
I'm a native New Yorker, now in Tokyo for many years, and yes, you captured the joy of my hometown: the tiny apartments (you should try tokyo!;-), the feast of experiences for all of the senses, the food, etc...

I'm editing something that could be quite dull and you've reminded me to be sure I'm actually talking to someone.

Thank you!
Thursday February 10th 2011, 11:27 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your kinds words, everyone. I can HARDLY WAIT to go back to New York!
Tuesday February 15th 2011, 11:06 AM
Comment by: TheErn (Bedford, TX)
Good tips on writhing in the big city's jungle of humanity and writing in the jungle of words, getting the most out of the least. Need I say more: no!
Monday February 21st 2011, 1:29 AM
Comment by: Michael J. (Qualicum Beach Canada)
I too am from N.Y. originally and feel you've succinctly captured that "New York state of mind". Thanks for the flashback.

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