Create Powerful Stories From Your Own Life

A couple of years ago, I gave a series of one-day memoir writing workshops, which gave people a chance to write about their lives. The workshops were a success, so I decided to revive them.

I was delighted to discover that interest in memoir writing was still as strong as ever, and the workshop soon filled up. On a Sunday morning, ten women gathered in a beautiful, sunny room to begin unlocking their memories and turning those memories into stories.

This writing workshop aimed to show the participants that their daily lives contained all the material they needed for stories. It would also show them that they only needed to record their lives with one small story at a time, event by event. This would take away that sense of drowning in story that often paralyses people and stops them from writing.

Building Stories

We began with the building blocks of story, which I’ve discussed in previous blog posts. After warm-ups, we did one exercise to cover each of the three building blocks: plot, character and setting. For plot, the participants recorded a small but significant injustice that happened to them when they were young. Everyone has a story like this – a time when they were promised a prize that wasn’t delivered, or when they were left out of a family occasion. Small incidents that sear themselves into your memory. Recording them makes for vivid stories.

Then we moved to character, and the participants did a character sketch, a sort of portrait in words of someone significant in their lives. They wrote CV type details like their name, age and address, described their appearance, and gave more personal details, like their hobbies, jobs, and family circumstances. The most important part of the sketch was the character’s secret past, a detail about them that was unusual or wasn’t known to the general public. This detail often forms the basis for rich stories.

Finally, we discussed setting, the time and the place where a story happens, and the characters wrote about rooms in their houses that meant a lot to them. I asked them to write about their bedrooms, as people often have a strong relationship with their bedroom, but they could write about any room that they were attached to. They wrote about what the room looked like, sounded like and smelled like, and most importantly, how it made them feel.

Journey Through the Senses

After lunch, it was time for a journey through the senses. With memories of good food still in their minds, the participants captured the taste of oranges, which can be a challenging fruit, and recorded a memory of a meal which was either horrible or delicious.

Oranges work all of a writer’s senses.

Then they told the life stories of unusual objects. I gave each of them an object from my collection of weird treasures, and they imagined where it came from, what adventures it had had and how it came to be here. This exercise was the hit of the day, producing vivid stories packed with event and emotion.

Finally, we travelled through soundscapes, recording the sounds we loved and despised, and listening to a piece of music which produced mixed reactions. The participants were asked to pick five words that came to mind when they heard the music. I deliberately pick pieces of music that aren’t easy on the ear, based on the fact that uncomfortable sensations produce writing that is just as eloquent as that produced by beautiful sensations.

If you feel you’d like to record your own memories through story and you’d like to be included in an upcoming memoir workshop, send me an email on derbhile@writewordseditorial.ie and I’ll add you to my newsletter mailing list. 00

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How to Write A White Paper That People Can Trust

I’ve just completed an interesting writing challenge, which involved writing a type of document I had never written before – a white paper. Most people associate white papers with government legislation, but white papers are also increasingly being used in the business world, by companies who want to put forward a case for a particular technology or ways of working.

I was approached by a company who wanted to produce a white paper that would showcase the benefits of smart working. This is the umbrella term used for any worker who works away from the company’s main office. The white paper would prove that smart working could work for companies, and in the process, this would build trust among the company’s customers that their products would help them harness the benefits of smart working.

Process of Producing White Paper

Writing the white paper was a lengthy but stimulating process. I had lots of input from the company to help me get started, with several videoconferences  and a face to face meeting, where I gathered valuable information that I could use as the foundation for the white paper. The most important thing to find out was why the company wanted the white paper in the first place. Everything else flows from that. It was good to know what expectations the company had, so that I could meet them.

Then it was time to get down to research. I have to confess, I went a bit mad on the research, because I wanted to make sure I could prove the benefits of smart working. I formulated questions that I entered into Google as a starting point, so I wouldn’t drown in information. I formed questions about general trends that influenced smart working, such as how many people commuted in Ireland. I also wanted to find out what role smart working played in worker wellbeing. The audience for this white paper is interested in the bottom line, and I unearthed some interesting statistics about savings companies could make.

The Finished Product

I divided the white paper into sections, exploring the contexts of smart working, the benefits of it and how to overcome barriers. I also did two case studies to show how smart working operated in practice, with a freelance employee and a CEO. After four weeks, I was finished and I sent it off to the clients.

Initial feedback was very positive, and I was delighted. They also took the time to give me more detailed feedback about ways to condense the white paper. In my quest to achieve an authoritative tone, I had overloaded the while paper with statistics.  

There are so many questions to answer in a white paper. Image sourced by Finola Howard.

I was glad of the opportunity to fine-tune it and to arrange the statistics in a way that would make it easier for people to absorb. While I wasn’t in charge of designing the white paper, the client asked me for input in terms of opportunities for infographics that would illuminate the findings even further. I also had to identify quotes from contributors that would make good pullout quotes. I did this in my final edit, and I also suggested that the designers darken the font to make it easier to read.

The white paper is now on a landing page and is due to go live as we speak. I am very proud to have written it. It is the most substantial piece of research I have done since I left college and I’m delighted that it made the grade. While I was writing it, I found it challenging, as I worked neglected brain muscles. But I rose to the challenge of writing in a factual style, rather than my usual creative style, and I’m now keen to rise to the challenge again, with further white papers.

Here’s a link to the white paper I’ve just done. If you like what you read and you want to produce a white paper that will help build trust in your brand and what you have to offer, drop me an email on derbhile@writewordseditorial.ie and I’ll put in place a plan for  your white paper.

How to Deliver a Supercalifragilistic Creative Writing Workshop for Kids

This week, I gave a creative writing workshop in a primary school. Not that unusual, you might think, but schools can be a hard nut to crack. They have tight budgets and don’t want to burden parents any more than they have to. But this workshop came about in the loveliest and most unexpected way.

I was chatting to my local librarian, a wonderfully dynamic woman called Tracy McEneaney, and she happened to mention that a school had been in touch asking if the library knew of anyone who gave creative writing workshops in schools. Tracy suggested I give her a quote and she would pass it on to the school. Within hours of sending in my quote, I was booked to give two workshops at that school, to two classes of children aged eight and nine.

Challenges of Delivering a Creative Writing Workshop

Immediately, I was faced with two challenges. One was that the workshops were only three days away. The other is that each of the workshops was to last just one hour. But I had a ready supply of activities which were more or less guaranteed to work. And an hour was enough to give the children an introduction to writing skills.

I usually like to have children complete a story within the timeframe of a creative writing workshop, and that wasn’t going to be possible on this occasion. But when you’re delivering a workshop in a school, you’re dealing with children of all abilities, so it’s more important to design your workshop in a way that gives every child a chance to take part.

The Ingredients of Story

I began by introducing the children to the story hat. This is a hat I bring to every workshop and it looks quite eccentric, so it’s a great way of breaking the ice. They all hat a chance to look at the hat and try it on, and then they wrote a story in a sentence about the hat, beginning with, ‘This hat is…’

This got us off to a flying start, and it was now time to introduce the three ingredients of story. The first of these is character, and I availed of the classroom’s interactive whiteboard for the character activity. I put a picture of a strange-looking old man on the computer screen, and got the children to create a portrait of this man in words. They gave him a name, an age, and a place to live. And they gave him a superpower which made him stand out from the crowd.

My magical storytelling hat, picture taken by moi.

The second ingredient was setting. Children love writing activities relating to setting, and this activity was a big hit, particularly with the second group of children I worked with. I got them to imagine what would happen if an alien landed in their classroom. That alien would never have seen Earth before. What would it see? What would it hear? The children drew the alien and the classroom, and wrote words in a speech bubble, imagining what the alien would say when it landed in their classroom.

Time was pretty tight, but we were able to squeeze in the third ingredient, plot. I did an activity called What If, based on the idea that many stories begin when a writer asks what if. The children were asked to write down three things they would do if they were invisible. Needless to say, they envisaged all kinds of mayhem.

The Delights of Writing in Schools

These two groups of children were among the most responsive I have ever worked with. My requests to share their writing were met with a forest of hands. They not only ran with every prompt I gave them; they added their own twists to it. And the ideas they came up with were creative, inventive, and hilariously funny. I left the classroom on a high which lasted for about two days, and I still feel a warm glow when I think about it.

I’ve developed an appetite for giving creative writing workshops in schools now, so if you happen to work in a school in the Waterford/Tipperary area and you like the sound of the workshops I offer, drop me an email on derbhile@writewordseditorial.ie.

How to Create A Brand Spanking New Website

Ten years ago this month, I started WriteWords Editorial. And not long after that, my website went up. It was designed by Samantha Clooney of The Virtual Office, who has since become a good friend. I went for a blue and white design to match my logo. It was soft on the eye, and the blue writing against a white background was easy to read.

And this website has remained more or less untouched ever since. There have been some changes here and there, but the fundamental design, layout and content have remained the same. But now, on the tenth anniversary of WriteWords, it’s time for a change. It won’t be a radical change, because if it ain’t broke, why fix it. But in the years since the website was created, people have begun to access the Internet in various ways, and the website needs to be adapted to respond to that.

The website will have the same blue colour scheme and roughly the same information. The message of the website, that WriteWords helps people tell their story, will be fundamentally unchanged. But the information will be arranged differently. It will be arranged so that it will all be in one place, and if people want to access the information on it, all they have to do is scroll down through a homepage which will be a hub for all the website’s content.

Choosing a Template

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had an enjoyable time window shopping for templates which will form the basis for the design of my website. In recent times, templates have taken over as the main design tool for websites. So, on Samantha Clooney’s advice, I trawled through Template Monster and I found a template that I believe will deliver my goal of a clean website that’s easy for people to browse through.

I was pretty dazzled by the choice on offer, so Samantha gave me some pointers to tell me what to look for. In the template I have chosen, people can see two things straight away when they visit the website: my list of services and my contact details. Then as they scroll down, they’ll see a homepage message and an about us, telling them what WriteWords is and what it can do for them.

Exploring the Website

As they scroll further, they’ll discover more about the services I offer and how they can be of help. There’ll be snippets of teaser content on the homepage that will entice them to read on. If they decide to read on, they’ll be brought to a new page, which will give more details about each service, and the services within each service.

My core services will remain unchanged. I’ll still have a page for my writing workshops, a page for my content writing services and a page for editing. But I’ll be adding two new service pages. One is for my transcription services, which I’ve kept under the radar up to now, but I’ve discovered that transcription is an in-demand skill, so I’ve decided to let people know what I can offer.

The other is a writing consultancy. I already offer some of these services, but now I’ll be putting them under one umbrella. Rather than create content for people, I’ll give them strategies for writing their own. I’ll help them get to the heart of what they want to say and give them a structure which will help them to say it. These will be one-to-one sessions, in which I’ll discuss people’s ideas with them and then compile a report outlining recommendations that will help them take their project to the next level.

When you browse through this website, it will be clear to you what WriteWords is about and what it can offer you. You’ll also see the latest entries in this blog. Even though my offering will be the same, I’m hoping it’ll look and feel fresh because of how it’s presented. The website will be launched in the next few weeks, and I’ll be shouting about it from the rooftops when it is. I’ll post a link to the website on this blog, and I hope you’ll take a moment to browse through it. ccent 4; \

How to Develop A Content Strategy For Your Projects

Hi all. I’ve decided to revive this blog for 2019, because I think it’s a good way to keep you all updated on what I’m doing. I also see it as a way to explain how I help people tell their stories and as a complement to my website. Besides, if I’m telling people that content is worth investing in, it’s a good idea to walk the walk. Thanks to all who supported the blog in the past, and I hope you’ll continue reading it in the months and years to come.

I’ve been doing lots of exciting things in recent months – an intellectual disability writing project, a stand-up comedy night, writing workshops, blogs for businesses and some newsletter editing.

Just before Christmas, I was approached by two different people who were working on two very different projects, but they had the same request of me. They needed help with structuring their thoughts and identifying exactly what they wanted to say. And for both clients, I wrote content strategy reports which would give them the clarity they were looking for.

The first person was writing a thesis and needed help structuring her arguments. She was a visual person, so words were a struggle. She had a brilliant hypothesis to explore and she knew what she wanted to say, but the words were locked in her head and she didn’t know how to order them on the page. The second person was setting up a new business and wanted to be able to summarise what she was offering for potential funders and future customers. She felt it would take her too long to do it herself.

Process for Developing Strategy

Though the projects were radically different, but the process I used for both clients was exactly the same. First, I arranged to meet them. This does involve an initial time investment, but talking to people face to face allows you to get to grips more quickly with what their projects are about. You’re establishing a relationship with them, so they feel they can talk to you more openly. This in turn makes it easier for you to decipher their message. I also recorded the meetings to make sure my reports would accurately reflect what they were trying to say.

I then used the information I gathered to create strategy documents that outlined a structure to follow. These reports pinpointed the central message of their projects as I saw it, and outlined the ways in which the clients could transmit their message. In the case of the thesis, the report gave advice on how to structure the arguments the client was making and how to divide the points she was making into chapters. I also gave tips on how to use language more effectively.

question-marks
Developing strategies to help people come up with bright ideas for their projects.

I am actually still writing the report for the business owner. The report will come in two parts. The first part will summarise what her business is about and how her products will benefit her customers. She can then use this information as the basis for all her content, for her business plan, her website and her promotional material. The second part will guide her on how to use that summarised information in her content. For example, I will show her how the different parts of the summary can be used to populate the pages of her website.

I cannot tell how successful these clients will be with their projects, but they are both determined, and I hope that my reports will play a small role in their success. These clients were mired deep in their projects and couldn’t think clearly, so I aimed to give them clarity of thought, to help them find their way through the maze and achieve their goals.

If you feel you’d benefit from a strategy that would help you structure your content, you can email me on derbhile@writewordseditorial.ie.

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Taking Memoir Writing to the Next Level

For some time now, I’ve been feeling that I’d love to give more in-depth writing workshops. I have given such writing workshops in the past, but I want to make it more of a feature of my work. I want to take a group of enthusiastic writers to the next level. Just over two weeks ago, with the help of just such a group of enthusiastic writers, I achieved that ambition. I gave a memoir-writing workshop which gave the writers the space to create a full-length story and get feedback on it within a few hours. The writers created their magic in this building.

 

Edmund Rice Heritage Centre
The Edmund Rice Heritage Centre, where these stories were created.

 

This story would explore the role of point of view in shaping stories. In other words, the point of view you choose to tell the story from shapes the atmosphere of the story, and changes your view of the characters in it. The writers would tell the story of a small but significant injustice that they experienced when they were young.

We all have them. The time we were promised sweets but never got them. Or we saved up to buy something, only to find that the shopkeeper had sold it on. As a twist, the writers would tell the story from the viewpoint of the character who committed this injustice.

Building the Story

The writers started by brainstorming the small injustices they’d experienced. They came up with a list of three, and then whittled that down to one. They then took the time to get to know the person who committed the injustice by doing a character sketch. This is a profile of a character, where you give details like their name, age, location, family, and secrets about them that no-one else knows, The writers would be aware of some of the details, but could use their imaginations to fill in the gaps.

Every story needs a structure. This story would follow that timeless template: the three-act structure, with a beginning, middle and end. I devised a set of questions based on the three-act structure. Answering these questions would help them gather the facts of the story and put them in order. Once they’d answered those questions, they could then flesh out the facts to make a full-length story.

The Finished Product

The writers ended up with remarkably accomplished first drafts, well structured, with rounded, sympathetic characters. Some of them had not actually written before, but rose to the challenge beautifully. They were also generous in giving feedback to each other. Most of all, they found that they gained a new perspective on events in their lives, and were able to empathise with their former adversaries.

Do you have a small but significant injustice from your childhood that you could mine for stories? Try writing about it from the viewpoint of the other person. You may be surprised at the results.