Five Ways Writers Can Get Fresh Answers from Stale Questions

‘What I did on my summer holiday’ is an essay topic beloved of school teachers, of whom my lovely friend Tom is one. We were chatting and it got me thinking about five ways to get fresh answers from a stale question.
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1. Don’t turn the kids (or yourself, or anyone) loose with a question as vague as ‘what did you do on your summer holiday?’ The sheer breadth of it drives specificity – and stories – clean out of a person’s head. You need details.

2. The best way to unearth solid gold stories is to sift your memories.
Do a 10 or 15 minute freewrite on:
a) Your daily routine on holiday.
b) Everything you packed in your suitcase, and why.
c) All the places you visited, include shops and cafes as well as museums and beaches.
d) A list of all the foods you ate.
e) Someone you met.
f) Souvenirs you bought.
g) The plane, train, or car you travelled in.

3. Read your freewrite. What jumps out? Did you meet a one-legged painter? Forget to pack your swimmers? Eat snails? Spend an afternoon in a laundromat because it was raining? Buy a snow-globe that broke on the way home? Grab the most vivid detail and memory — this is your story.

4. Picture the moment you want to capture
— you about to bite into the first snail, the rain sloshing like the water in the machines — and imagine you’re a photographer standing at a distance. At first you see the whole image now advance the zoom lens, getting closer and closer. Notice the wine stain on the table cloth, the phone number scratched in the white paint of the washing machine. Study what you’re wearing, your scruffy hair, the red streak where you missed the suncream, the crumbs on your lips, the blister on your little toe. This is what you’re going to tell your readers.

5. Chronological narrative is hard to write. To avoid getting stuck in ruts, play with perspective. Try:
a) Writing the scene from the point of view of the waiter, or the washing machine, or the rain.
b) Writing about yourself in the third person.
c) Starting at the end and working backwards.
d) Writing it like a script using description, notes and dialogue.
e) Breaking up your first sentence and using each word to start a successive paragraph, e.g. “Everyone told us, ‘it never rains in August'”. So you know you have to write eight paragraphs. The first will start with “Everyone”, the second with “Told”, the third with “Us”, etc. This creates instant structure and challenge.

You Write! Share your freewrite or topic image in the comments.

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