Get Some Perspective – in “Words Fail Me”


Today’s writing advice comes from Words Fail Me, by Patricia T. O’Connor, author of Woe Is I, and previously an editor at the New York Times Book Review. I love this helpful writing book by O’Connor. Im sure you’ve noticed a theme to my selection of books on writing: I enjoy a playful sense of humor to help me remember rules and guidelines. 

As a writer, perspective is an area I struggle with. O’Connor’s section on “Lost Horizon: What’s the Point of View?“, has some key takeaways that can help you flesh out a scene to help your readers visualize the setting.

Start quote

Easy Does It

I learned to drive on a stick shift, and the car protested loudly until I got the hang of it. Shifting smoothly takes practice, in writing as well as in driving A clumsy shift in perspective can be as grating as the sound of grinding gears.

Even there are many things to describe, it’s possible to move from one to another smoothly. Say we’re writing about a busy harbor town in a piece for a travel magazine. We start out small, with a particular red fishing boat bobbing at anchor. Then we pull back, describing the pattern all the brightly colored boats make on the blue water. We pull back further still, to include some gulls overhead, then the wharves at the foot of the village, then the bustling dockside street, then the houses extending up the hill and thinning out as they get farther from the water. Notice how the perspective shifts smoothly, moving from small to large, from particular to general, like a zoom lens on a camera.

Then let’s say we add the fact the red fishing boat has nets spread on its deck, drying in the sun. Crash! There we were, hovering somewhere in the sky above the village, when the bottom dropped out.

Be kind to readers. Let them down gently.

End quote

My Thoughts

Honestly, she lost me when we got to the nets spreading out on the deck part. I think the example perhaps got too long–but I picked up what she was putting down (LOL). The gist of this section is that building the scene for your readers is most helpful if you apply the same principle as a camera lens. Whether you’re starting from a broad view and zeroing in on a specific focal point, or vice-versa, this method makes a lot of sense! When facing a blank page or a new chapter, having a starting point like this will make it so much easier to build a scene or environment.

Speaking of perspective, today is Thanksgiving, and I wish you a blessed day with your friends and family. It’s been a tough month with the election and the civil unrest all across the country. I’m so thankful for my family and friends. Diversity in thought can only help us build knowledge and empathy. Regardless of what our personal beliefs are, today is a day we should be grateful to have one another.

Happy Thanksgiving!