Enliven Your Writing with the Keyword Method


writeitHave you ever sat down to write but felt out of ideas? Or have you been able to write, only to find what you produced seemed predictable and dull? There is a technique which could help you move beyond that— the use of keywords in composing a segment of writing.

I’ve used something similar myself before— in fact, it’s my go-to method when writing poetry. But recently I bought a book called ‘Writing Poetry from the Inside Out’ by Sandford Lyne which uses this technique.

Lyne, a Louisiana poet who leads poetry writing workshops, suggests using word groups of four words, and gives a whole appendix full of them in the book. Me being me, I mix-and-match from his groups so I don’t come up with anything too dull. For example, this morning I used the words ‘dragonfly, jewels, emperor, moon’ to write a poem. The dragonfly turned out to be a jewel thief.

Now, the way I have used keywords in the past in poetry is finding them at random from a book or newspaper. (Remember newspapers?) Often I would grab a dictionary, close my eyes to flip the book this way and that, open the book at random and point to a part of the page, and open my eyes to see what my new keyword was. OK, sometimes I cheat. I take the most interesting word from more-or-less where my finger was pointing.

I’ve also been known to use a whole phrase as a keyword. And I sometimes use a lot more than just four words. I’ve written poems with many keywords from two or more distinct and different sources— like a Catholic prayer book, a book on nuclear war, and a communist economics book, which led to my poem ‘nuclear sainthood profits’, a poem I still enjoy to this day.

What about prose writers? The keyword method can work for you too! Say you are writing a scene this morning and you don’t know for sure what to write. You have an idea or two, maybe, but nothing excites you. So, to start, find at least four random keywords. Get them from the Lyne book if you have it, or from random words from books. If you are writing historical, use a book about the period to glean keywords from. This also can work for medieval-style fantasy. Sci-fi authors can use science books and sci-fi novels, political thriller authors can use political books or the newspaper. Or you can get a few keywords from something very different— a prayer book or the Bible to glean words for your science fiction or technothriller book.

Write your keywords on a pad of paper which you keep next to your writing area— you want to be able to glance at it as you write. Get going with your writing, and try to work a keyword or two into your work. It doesn’t have to turn into a major plot point or anything. Just a mention.

If you have the right keywords, and enough of them (but not too many), one or more of the words ought to excite you— at least a little— in connection with the scene you are writing this morning. If you are having the kind of day when nothing excites you, use one of the words anyway. Especially one that strikes you as a bit off-the-wall or odd in the scene in question. You may like it. Or you can always take the word back out again the next day.

Why does the keyword method work? When you sit down to write, you have an infinite number of choices about Absolutely Everything. That often can prove overwhelming. Deciding that you ‘have to’ work certain keywords into your poetry or prose cuts back on those infinite choices. It’s a small challenge which can take your mind off of fears you have about making the right choice every time in all the bigger writing issues.

Warning: just because the keyword method, as I lay it out, works for ME doesn’t mean that it will work the same way for YOU. Try different types of keywords, different numbers of them, different sources. You may find a way to make keywords work for YOU. Or you may not. Do what works for YOU!

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