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Three things: An exercise in specificity for writers

Take inspiration from the season and nourish your own signs of green on the page.

An illustrated stack of books is topped with a cozy mug filled with cozy tea or coffee. A pencil rests alongside the stack.
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Earlier this year, I vowed to reform my reading tracking, which, as longtime readers may remember, previously only existed in a high-tech system called “A Really Long List in an Untitled Draft Email.” No, no, this would not do, I decided. Ten years of helter-skelter lists were enough. It was time to get serious. 

It was time for a Google Spreadsheet.

Oh, what a beautiful color-coded world my read books now live in. There are pie charts for genre, book count by month, and author demographics, to help ensure my reading list looks more like the U.S. census (incredibly diverse!) than the publishing industry (largely white, non-disabled, and straight!). 

Each time I closed a book for the last time, I flew to the spreadsheet, eager to get that delicious dopamine hit from seeing my charts update to accommodate the new title. But it still didn’t feel like enough. So, on a whim, I added another column called “Three Things.” 

In it, I started listing three aspects of the writing that struck fire in me, for better or worse. The goal would be an exercise in specificity: not “great dialogue” but “sparklingly witty banter that manages to still feel organic, not too-good-to-be-true.” (People We Meet on Vacation.) Not just “a sense of time and place is gorgeously rendered on the page,” but “it took me twice as long to read this book because I couldn’t stop pausing to research every incredible detail mentioned here, from vintage automat menus to period furniture styles.” (Harlem Shuffle.) 

These aren’t reviews – they’re more personal than that and, sometimes, more brutally honest. I’m not looking to capture the experience of the entire book. I’m just looking to record, precisely and minutely, three ways this narrative sparked something in me as I read it. Because all books that resonate with us change us, I think, even if it’s in the subtlest of ways. I exit each narrative with something I didn’t have before. These three things are one way to remind myself of that. By recording just three short bites of a greater whole, I record three brief flashes of inspiration; three tiny glimpses of change. 

My three things have made me appreciate how many different ways there are for writers to satisfy and succeed for our readers. Each of us brings a different basket of offerings to the page. Some writers, for example, create worlds so vividly detailed and immersive, it feels almost painful to leave them when we finish the story. Some write plots so urgent and compelling that we read entire novels in one sitting, unable to resume real life until we breathlessly reach the conclusion. Some can weave gorgeous description into action so seamlessly we never feel as if the pacing slows despite all the fine detail; some can explain the most complex of subjects in the most straightforward of prose; some still can make us laugh out loud no matter how dark or dreary our mood.

This month, as the days grow longer and the world outside our windows bursts with new life, I encourage you to try Three Things – not to the books you read, but to the words you write. It is so easy to become fixated on the barren have-nots in our writing: All the struggle, the fight, the swimming upstream, the hurdles we strain to leap. But take inspiration from the season and nourish your own signs of green on the page. What tiny marvels bloom in your own writing? What three sparks do you leave on your readers? What strengths lurk under your own soil, desperate to unfurl into the light? 

Write them down, name them, and detail these strengths with great specificity on the page. You are not just “good at world-building;” your settings come to you fully formed, and you feel you have to race to get it all down on the page. Maybe you have a natural ear for language, and you know your sentences feel just as powerful when spoken aloud as they do when read silently: perhaps you’re a master of immersive openings that yank readers into your narrative from the very first line. 

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Write them down and pick your very favorite on the list. Send them to us at [email protected] with the subject line “Three Things.” Please do not be shy: We’d love to feature our readers’ points of pride in a future issue. For just one moment, let’s all crow about our small strengths on the page. Because in a writing world so filled with rejection, wouldn’t it be lovely to celebrate our victories at the sentence level?  

 

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