Last month I offered In the Trenches, Part 1, where we looked at how crucial it is to get into our reader’s skin and keep them in mind while we write. We looked at ways we can get closer to our reader—intentional about knowing who they are from multiple angles, including through real conversations.
We’re going to take that deeper in this post.
Begin by imagining being trapped in a room . . .
You’re not sure where this room is. It has no windows and you only have a few vague clues how you got there. You know your part in the deal, but you didn’t see this result coming.
You hear footsteps coming. Someone slides a book under the door. Desperate for contact and some glimpse of life outside this box, you snatch up the book. You have just enough light coming from a weak bulb hanging from the center of the room to view its pages.
As you begin to read, you sense the book could be about you. The writer refers to an experience like yours and yet it’s soon clear he doesn’t really get how personally crazy and shaken you feel by this dark existence. He writes that he gets it, but he’s never lived it like you have. The trap, the box is something he’s avoided well in life, so his words only slap you across your face and you feel their sting. While he revels in freedom, you remain alone, trapped, and hurting.
Writing in the trenches, we seek to understand the many ways others grapple with the life questions and experiences we write about. We also, on some level, have to have lived what we write about. Otherwise we write at great and lofty distances from our reader. Our words are only theory that is as out of reach for our reader as touching a moon obscured by four walls without windows.
We may feel we’ve touched that moon. Even if we couch that in humble realization of God’s grace, we then can be at great risk of writing from an I’ve-arrived place that distances ourselves from our readers. Even worse, distances our readers from God who does understand and care.
So a few in-the-trench considerations:
You might like to begin by writing a brief outline sketch of your article or a chapter you’re working with. Especially highlight the take-aways for your readers—those nuggets you hope will lodge in their minds and hearts.
In the trench with your realness:
How much of yourself and your in-the-trench living do you reveal to your reader? Where can you bring in that extra realness through a personal anecdotal story? How can you remove the I’ve-arrived voice from your writing? Is there a harsh or judgmental edge that also needs some close examination?
In the trench with your awareness of others:
Do you approach your topic only from the angle of your experience? What experiences or perspectives do others have? What questions might they have that they hope you will address? Are there stories of others you can include to help round out the experience you bring to your reader?
In the trench with your topic:
What fresh approaches can you take toward your topic, including tone or style? What else do you need to learn about your topic that you don’t currently know that will touch readers deeply where they need it?
In the trench with prayer:
Have you gone for the obvious “great” reader take-away too quickly? What would happen if you explored further, stretched yourself? If you prayed deeply about your project impact and your reader? What new take-aways might God show you?
My experience in the trenches with readers? With the Live Free Series, nonfiction tough-topic books I wrote for teens and young adults, I’m not sure I focused at first on the trenches, but I know I wanted to go to the deep places. In these books I didn’t share my personal story. For reasons beyond the scope of this post, I wrote what I term “author absent”–focusing primarily on the true stories of others.
How then did I get into the trenches?
First, I’ll admit I didn’t know what I was doing or what I was getting myself into. But as I look back I see where God took me. I got into the trenches through interviews meant to last an hour that turned into three or four soul-searching hours of confession and healing. These real stories, by virtue of deeply honest sharing, show readers they are not alone and don’t have to stay walled up in a dark existence.
What else? I wept, sometimes in person, sometimes not—with those I interviewed or for the potential readers I prayed for. I let my heart ache and care. Partly because as a teen I had faced pressures and traps as they do. And then in the writing, with choice of tone, stories, words of compassion and hope, I got into the chaotic, painful trenches with my readers.
I prayerfully made certain these were not easy books to write. Trench writing.
What are you writing? Even in the seemingly simple article, how will you get into the trenches with your readers?
Jan writes nonfiction from her home in the foothills of the California Sierras. She is currently working on more material for the teen/ya audience and for those who deeply care about them. She also enjoys life coaching and mentoring writers. Visit her site at www.jankern.com.