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Why Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is still one of the best writing books out there?

Here are some tips to improve your writing based on Natalie Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones."


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Marilyn Regan

3 years ago | 4 min read

Photo:  Courtesy of Unsplash
Photo: Courtesy of Unsplash

When Natalie Goldberg submitted her completed manuscript, Writing Down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within, four publishers not only rejected it but took time to let her know why. In written detail.

The book broke a hard and fast archetype by suggesting that writers are not always a chosen few. They could be made. Natalie’s claim was like saying the earth was round and revolved around the sun at a time when everyone believed it was flat and the center of the universe.

Thankfully, Shambhala Press, Boston, MA, saw the genius in her approach and published the book. It is a writer’s Bible, now celebrating its 30th Anniversary. This gem is why many of us have been given the opportunity to hone our craft and become writers. I’ve been honing mine for quite some time, but I have more work to do.

Of late, I’ve received feedback from one of my writer’s groups that a story I’m working on was not as experiential as it should be. I was telling and instructing as opposed to sharing and showing. Out came the Bible. Who better to consult than Natalie Golberg? She did not disappoint as several chapters addressed my problem.

Let’s take a look.

Don’t Tell, but Show

The title of the chapter is perfect.

In Natalie’s words, telling and instructing are not the same as describing. When we tell, we are promoting our thoughts instead of letting the reader create their own. We are telling them how and what you feel, instead of helping them experience the story. The words we choose should produce a visceral feeling; a hypnotic state of sorts, a world the reader has gotten lost in.

For instance, wouldn’t you prefer to feel what it’s like to ride on Harry Potter’s broom as opposed to someone telling you how it feels? You want to be able to fly as a participant, not a spectator. Who doesn’t?

The one exception she makes to this rule is for the writer to use first thoughts, stating that as “a mind reflecting experiences,” they come as close to a feeling as possible. Just don’t overdo it.

About is out

Warning. Danger.

As soon as we use the word about, we are in telling/instructing mode rather than share/show mode. Yes, Harry Potter is about a wizard. As a reader, you want to be one as well, not hear a textbook version of what a wizard is and does. As a writer, you want to describe, describe, describe. Use your words.

If we’re telling something second-hand, it will come off as dull. While no writer can be a witness to every story, we can be good storytellers and “breathe a little life into it” and transfer our emotions.

Be Specific

Everything has a name, so say precisely what it is. It may require research, but attention to detail will make your story come alive. For instance, if it’s a lemon, you need to say it’s a lemon, not just a piece of fruit. What else makes your lips pucker like one?

When we name something specifically with all its characteristics, it’s like calling a person by their name instead of calling them “Hey you.” We are not just people, but individuals with our own voices and set of fingerprints. There will never be another person just like us.

Push Yourself

Write every day. Make it as little as five or ten minutes or 250 words. As @Shaunta Grimes puts it, it makes it harder to create an excuse not to write than to do the writing. Then give it your full and concentrated attention. All you’ve got.

How else are can you make the leap to creating those dramatic characters or serene landscapes? You need to immerse yourself in it fully — kind of like stepping into a hot shower after a long, sweaty day outside in the cold. You are there. Nowhere else.

Turn off the notifications on your phone. Or better yet, put your phone in another room. It sounds extreme, but you can only do one thing at a time. There is no such thing as “multi-tasking.” Multi-tasking is crap. It’s partial attention. If you’re doing it all the time, then it’s continuous partial attention, and you won’t make any progress on that one thing you’re trying to accomplish. In this instance, good writing.

Be Aware of Verbs

Verbs make the sentence and your story move and action verbs do this the best. If your verbs are boring, your writing is boring. Maybe you’ve slipped into instruction mode again, and you need to switch back to feeling, sensing mode.

To stretch your creative genius a bit, Natalie suggests the following:

  • Fold a piece of paper in half.
  • Write ten nouns on the left-hand side.
  • Turn to the right-hand side, choose an occupation, and write ten verbs that go with it.
  • Now open the paper.

The chances are that the nouns have little or nothing to do with the verbs. This is where you turn on your creative genius and, as an exercise, write several sentences combing subjects and verbs that are generally not used together. Now write paragraphs and then combine them to write a story, one like no one has written before.

Edit, Edit, Edit

Read and reread.

Read your writing out loud. It will have a certain rhythm and beat to it, and you’ll hear when that beat is off. Reading out loud is useful for catching grammatical and spelling errors as well. You’ll end up finding things that you’re embarrassed you ever wrote. I know I have.

On the final read-through, record yourself. Use your smartphone for something brilliant. Then leave it for a day or two. Write something else. Now go back to the recording. Put in your earbuds, sit down in your favorite comfy chair or couch, close your eyes, and hit the start button. Listen to your work objectively

Is it alive? Did it transport you somewhere else? Could you smell the ocean? Feel the wind on your face? Hear the seagulls? If it was dramatic, did it make you emotional? Do you want to get that bad guy? If you answered yes to the above, you’ve done it. You’ve moved from telling and instructing to sharing and showing.

Keep writing with an objective eye. Take your time and squeeze out every bit of detail. In time, you’ll create your masterpiece.


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Marilyn Regan

Marilyn Regan is a writer, blogger, yogi and spiritual medium. She is an avid reader and animal lover who lives on the ocean with her cats. To read more of her writing, please go to: www.medium.com/@marilynregan.


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