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A Writing SOP from an Army Journalist Turned Award-Winning Author

Posted on booksbywomen.org September 26, 2021

By Alicia Dill

Typically, emotions are running high when I speak to groups as a female veteran advocate. We may be hugging it out in person as sisters-in-uniform or discussing on Zoom what it means to walk away from a full life to go serve in an unknown location with an unspecified mission, but eventually, like clockwork, I get a question about my writing process. It can be hard to switch gears from telling a collective story and motivating a crowd to the mechanics of how I put a story tactically on paper. They may ask how I got started―or, more importantly to many, how I finished it (a whole other article)―but here is my quick advice on the fundamentals I’ve tried to give aspiring writers that actually worked for me. 

  • Write what you know

Whoever wrote this first was spot on. I heard it from Wally Lamb. How did he write well in the first-person narrative? He understood mental health and the setting of the psychiatric ward growing up in Three Rivers, Connecticut. He understood the details of the illness and he made them real. He stuck close to home so his places were rich in detail with characters he could have known. I used this phrase to create a fictional narrative with memories from my military service: for example, the “embrace the suck” mantra of the military permeated specific moments, as well as the anxiety that can creep in when we all try to be things we are not, like perfect heroes. 

  • Let it flow

Practically, how did I write and finish three novels with a full-time job and a bunch of random hobbies? I found my flow and then, with discipline and patience, I channeled it. An exercise below: 

Set a timer for 20 or so minutes and write anything that comes to mind with no judgment or editing. Just freely flowing. Some of it you may use later, and some parts may be discarded. It is important to understand this is a way to schedule creative moments. 

If this is still difficult, stop the timer and think back to a specific memory with all the five senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing, sight) of something from your time in service. Start the time again, and once the timer goes off, you can keep adding additional chunks of time. You may be sitting there with a blank page and that’s okay. Try again tomorrow.  Look! You’ve already started. 

  • Give your writing a kiss

When I was ten years old, I went to a young writers conference at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. It was everything. Up until then, my writing was winning awards at school, but I wasn’t sure it was actually any good. Could it be that my elementary teachers and family were just gassing me up? At the conference, I was surrounded by kids just like me, storytellers.

Our instructor, a gray-bearded gentleman, explained to a class of all ages that we needed to give our writing a KISS. Then he wrote on the chalkboard: “Keep it simple, stupid.” We all laughed, but I stared down at my short story, horrified―all those details! Where the gold shone from the tips of the leaves and the babbling brook lapped over the rocks and an eagle flew over the scene…ya know what I’m saying. By stripping away the frivolous description, I could get to the heart of my story.

So whether you are writing an article, a screenplay, or a novel, keep it simple, stupid. I believe this tip was meant for the future Army journalist in me because I didn’t suffer the way my DINFOS (Defense Information School) classmates did as our uniformed instructors tore up their lengthy attempts to explain “Who, what, when, where, why and how” and removed the fluff. 

Writing can be a way to focus your energy, dive deep in your experience and simply tell your story. I encourage all veterans to put it down however it works for you, using a notepad, a computer, the voice recorder on your phone, or relaying to someone else who can write it down for you. I’ve used all the methods and it just matters that you take it one step at a time. 

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Posted at the Daily Cup of Yoga 

Alicia Writes