Word Count

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.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. 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:

Monday January 8th 2007, 4:46 PM
Comment by: Jason S.
I hate to post it...but I have to...

I don't know of any helicopter that is short enough that you must actually duck to protect your neck.

I guess the helicopter really isn't the right height.

Monday January 8th 2007, 4:58 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Hmm... maybe Daphne was thinking "metaphor!" Thanks for your comment. Harris/ VT Editor
Monday January 8th 2007, 8:12 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
You're right -- no one NEEDS to duck -- but don't we all do it anyway?? (Something about the lethal sound of those blades.) When I was a kid we used to love it whenever my father drove us into an underground garage. He'd always duck his head. "You don't need to do that, Daddy!" we'd shriek with delight. He always looked sheepish (well, for about the first 100 times. After that, I'm sure it was deliberate.) Thanks for excavating that memory, Jason!
Monday January 8th 2007, 10:07 PM
Comment by: Susan F.
What a fabulous article! I had to visit her site and read all the others. Genius! Pure Genius. Thanks!!

-- :D
Tuesday January 9th 2007, 9:55 PM
Comment by: Chris B.
Good article. I am a home inspector, we as home inspectors often write confusing narrative mixing up problems with symptoms. It makes for confusing and boring reading. I know first hand exactly what Daphne is talking about. This article was helpful.

Thursday January 18th 2007, 11:52 AM
Comment by: Analee R.
I want to learn more about the strategies of writing. I love how the metaphorical helicopter ride delivered its message. I must read more of what's in here with Visual Thesaurus. :)
Thursday January 25th 2007, 9:01 PM
Comment by: Melinda B.
Changing altitude is a provocative metaphor. Good advice. But what if you don't have any reason to fly the helicopter? That is, what do you do when you can't seem to find the inspiration to write? Is there as good a metaphor for assuaging the angst associated with that?
Sunday January 28th 2007, 7:40 AM
Comment by: E. Mike S.
Melinda Baker:

I hope this doesn't sound glib, but if one doesn't have any reason to fly the helicopter, then he shouldn't fly it. Inspiration, or the lack thereof, gets romanticized. It's like waiting around to be struck by lightning--very unlikely to happen; not enough stormy weather. It's best to just start writing to see where it leads. That may be somewhere or nowhere, but in any case no one ever finds out unless he simply does. Writing is ninety-five percent work, and the commitment to that, and maybe five percent inspiration. Assuaging Angst? Doing helps.
Sunday March 4th 2007, 2:05 PM
Comment by: Judy K.
re: helicopters

those blades kick up quite a bit of wind.
I would have been perfectly happy to stand upright when, as an EMT student, I was part of a team to collect a patient from a lifeflight helicopter. Not sure "why" I had to duck, but it was definitely emphasized that I "should".

re: writing, big picture to details

Or you can write details to big picture. Just one of the varieties of structuring articles -- but a useful reminder to not mix things up.
Tuesday July 22nd 2008, 12:30 AM
Comment by: Patricia D. (Santa Clara, CA)
As a test engineer who has to write reports for a widely diverse audience (management, sales, development engineers)this is an extremely valuable reminder.

When I write a bug report, the development engineers' needs come first, all the gory details. Sales just wants to know if we can meet the deadline and if everything the customer asked for still works. Sales also does not want to have to rephrase the report for customer consumption. Management wants to know that we have a handle on it and can deliver on schedule.

So the only group that really wants to know exactly what went wrong is the development engineers. Everyone else wants just wants to know if the schedule is in jeopardy. I have developed the habit of dealing with the schedule issue first (high altitude) and developing the details later (ground level).

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