Are you giving your readers enough beach balls?

Word count: 750 words

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Do you take your writing too seriously? Your writing can be serious — but you don’t have to be! Lighten up and throw a few beach balls at your readers!

My 17-year-old son (he’s the person who wrote the music for my Click Flick) is the assistant sound manager for a local summer theatre group, Theatre Under the Stars. The company has 1,000 outdoor seats in Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park. As you might imagine, producing a show outside is a dangerous game in rainy Vancouver, where this mid-July summer still hasn’t reliably arrived. (I’ve worn shorts and a t-shirt only twice this “summer.”)

Our son gave my husband and me free tickets for opening night and last week we braved a scattering of rain to see Bye Bye Birdie. I’d never seen the show before and I have to say it’s not one of my favourite musicals. Still, the show is really well produced, performed and staged and there are five minutes of almost indescribable beauty at the very beginning.

Spoiler alert! (Stop reading this column now if you live in Vancouver and plan on attending the show.) As the first few bars of the prelude begin, people we thought were ushers suddenly transformed into performers. About a dozen of them entered from the back of the outdoor theatre bearing enormous beach balls, which they released into the audience. These enormous, multi-coloured balls floated over our heads and were batted by audience members (in time to the music, it seemed!) for the length of the prelude.

It was absolutely magical! Why? Three reasons, I think. (1) We didn’t expect it. Aren’t you totally charmed when something fun happens that you weren’t looking for? (2) It involved the audience. Actors (and directors) often want to include their theatregoers in the production but these efforts sometimes make the audience feel put upon. But who could possibly feel uncomfortable doing something as easy as batting a beach ball overhead? (3) It screamed “summer.” Trust me, in Vancouver, we’re always hungry for anything that even whispers summer!

So now my question for you: Does your writing include any beach balls? You may think that this sort of thing doesn’t apply to “serious” writing. But it does! Anytime you can make your reader smile you’re making yourself a better writer. Here are three examples of other communicators who’ve successfully lobbed a few beach balls over the heads of their readers:

1) To my mind, few things are more boring than an annual report. But Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland has shown that even a small campus in a relatively isolated city can give the Ivy League a run for its money. In 2010 the university turned its annual report into a celebration of Hollywood. Their researchers “starred” in a series of photos designed to recall posters for such popular movies as The Sound of Music, Goodfellas and the Matrix. I dare you to look at the pages of this report without smiling!

2) In a story in the June 27 issue of the New Yorker Adam Gopnik described his efforts at learning to draw. Although his piece is filled with interesting, colourful metaphors, here is one of my favourites (describing the scene at the Atelier where he started his lessons): “The statues weren’t displayed as they are at the Met, at dignified intervals, but bunched together, higgledy-piggledy, so that the effect was that of a cocktail party of tall white plaster people who worked out a lot.” This image succeeds, I think, not just because it creates an unforgettable picture in readers’ minds, but also because it is so surprisingly accurate if you’ve ever seen a statue!

3) A different story by Rebecca Mead, in the same magazine, illustrates the power of telling the truth as its own beach ball. In a profile of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton she writes, “Walton does not have the expensively curated look of a Park Avenue matron: her face is tanned and weather-beaten, and shows no signs of having been submitted to the surgeon’s knife. She wears her steel-gray hair pulled back in a straggly bun. For a very rich person, she lives relatively modestly….” (And a photograph that runs directly beneath the story proves all of these attributes.) I love this kind of writing. Look at the masterful adjectives — “unusually curated” and “straggly” — and the telling verb “having been submitted.” This kind of writing veritably bounces with beach balls!

When you’re writing, don’t let yourself become so serious that you think beach balls aren’t allowed. Instead, a little thread of lightness, of humour even, can be your defining mark. Your readers will thank you.

[Photo courtesy Smowblog, Flickr Creative Commons.]