Welcome to Ned’s Nickels Worth on Writing, a weekly feature in which I utilize my 15 years as a columnist to impart writing wisdom that 50 Shades author E.L. James has called “The inspiration for my ‘safe’ word.” Keeping that in mind (…ok, that’s enough), this week’s NWOW is special because, like a good “safe” word, it could keep you from getting spanked too hard when it comes to formulating a strong ending to your story, column, novel, latest post or current relationship.
Before we get started, I’d like to say thanks to Ross Murray at Drinking Tips for Teens and Molly at Mollytopia for suggesting this topic in response to last week’s NWOW, during a series of comments that went something like this:
Ross: You should write a Nickel’s Worth on endings. They’re often as hard to write as an opener, and you usually have a strong closer. (I’d say “always” but, c’mon, let’s be honest…)
Molly: Yes(!) any tips on strong endings would be awesome to hear. I write stuff all the time and when I’m done and I’m like, “Oh.” And then what? Save draft, or move to trash? Ahhhhh…
Ross and Molly (together): HaHa! Just kidding! Your endings always stink!
Ross: Yeah! And your openings aren’t much better!
Molly: Hey, at least they’re better than what’s in between!
Ross: Ha! We should get a beer together!
Me: But don’t you live way up in Canada?
Ross: I wasn’t talking to you Mr. NWOW!
You know, on second thought, I probably should’ve ended that passage a little sooner. Maybe right after Molly’s first comment. Instead, by leaving everything in, I diluted what would have been a much stronger ending to that series of comments, which was supposed to serve as a segue into today’s topic:
How paraphrasing can end friendships: 2 Tips for writing strong endings
The brutally honest and somewhat cruel (and entirely made up) comments by Ross and Molly, which actually ended after Molly’s first comment, is an example of Tip No. 1:
Know When to Quit
Readers can tell when you’re searching for an ending, which is a little like a gambler rolling the dice one more time to recoup his losses, or a wife who knows her husband has no idea where he’s driving regardless of how many times he says he knows the way. As a writer, you have to be able to recognize when this is happening and either cut your losses or ask for directions. How do you decide which is the best approach? You don’t have to! Just write, “And then there was a massive explosion!”
Ok, fine. That won’t always work. Especially if you’re writing a children’s book. If you can’t utilize that tool, then it may be time to cut your losses. My suggestion is to start at the end of what you’ve written and work backwards. This is a variation of a technique used by artists, who will look in the mirror at their painting to get a different perspective and spark ideas. In writing, it can reveal patterns and redundancies, which, if you trace them to the beginning, often point to where you need to end. Just to clarify, do not hold your monitor up to a mirror and read it backwards. It will only give you a headache.
The second part of this tip was about knowing when to ask for directions. What this means is exactly that: Have someone read what you have written and ask them for some direction. You’d be surprised how insightful your local gas station attendant can be. If you don’t feel like driving, or are worried about getting lost, ask a family member, fellow blogger, neighbor, burglar — it doesn’t have to be a writer or English major. More than likely, the problem is that you’re over analyzing. You don’t need more deep analysis. You just need a fresh set of eyes. If you suspect your neighbor has a fresh set of eyes in their refrigerator, the trip to the gas station might be worth the drive.
Tip No. 2:
In the Beginning
I have to credit my ninth-grade college prep teacher Mr. Danielson, who gave me a big fat “F” on my first assignment in his class. The assignment was called “At My House,” which was an essay he gave in order to gage our writing skills. Excitedly, I wrote to impress and turned in a 500-word essay that I thought was funny, insightful and utter genius (Hey, I was 15). When I got it back, I tried to crawl inside my desk. Across the top, next to my “F,” he had written in big red letters: What are you trying to SAY?!? Though he later told me my essay was funny and insightful (he left off the genius part), it was lacking something very important:
Any direction whatsoever.
It was then I learned the value of essay format, which is essentially what I still use today:
State your point
Offer three examples
Conclude with restating your point
I know that seems simplistic, but whether it’s a novel, column or news story, I still use that basic template — particularly in writing columns and posts. So how does that pertain to coming up with a strong ending? Let’s call Mr. Danielson!
Mr. Danielson: Hello?
Me: Mr. Danielson! It’s Ned!
Mr. Danielson: Who?
Me: Ned Hickson. From your freshman english class in 1981!
Mr. Danielson: Hey! You still owe me an essay on…
I think what Mr. Danielson was trying to say is that, many times, the perfect ending to our writing piece can be tied to something in the beginning. That’s where we usually lay the foundation and set the tone for our piece, and where we can often wrap things up with a reference that will provide readers with a sense of closure.
Speaking of which, our front office girl, “Misty,” has just told me Mr. Danielson has called back and wants to know where my essay is — so I better get to work on it. Was this the strongest ending for this piece? Perhaps not.
But if the gas station attendant isn’t available for advice, you can bet I’ll be contacting Ross and Molly.
(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, will be released this December from Port Hole Publications. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at Siuslaw News, P.O. Box 10, Florence, Ore. 97439)