Monday, February 17, 2014

Don't Let Your Reader Walk Off a Cliff


On the sign at the left, you notice the city did not create a sign half the size and then whitewash over the words, all to give it a more subtle look to surprise a hiker.

Yet that is often what we do in our writing. In the name of literary style, we obfuscate our message.

Huh? Obfuscate? Hide. We hide our message.

When I was a new writer, lo these many eons ago, I thought I was quite clever when I did not come right out and say what I meant. Who cares where we are? Look at this dialog.

Surprise the reader. I thought that was a good thing.

Recently I was reading Picturing the Personal Essay by Tim Bascom in which student writers are advised not to be afraid to come right out and say what they mean. Don't be afraid.

The reader wants to know:

Who are the players? Who is your main character? Minor characters? Who is the narrator?

Where are we? Rural, urban, American, European?
Desert, mountains?

What are you, the writer, selling? Is your piece poetry, mystery or memoir? Or something else?

What does the piece of writing offer that the reader needs or wants? What's the payoff? Why should the reader invest in your writing? Life-saving information, excitement, motivation,insight, affirmation?

Of course, we still want to create writing that is artful, interesting, unique, and beautiful.

At the same time, we want the reader to be clear what the piece was "about".

Engaging but not obscure. Tell the reader just enough -- which may be more than we think.


The Launching Pad presents a problem I often see in writing classes. A writer mentions a person or place one time, maybe early in the writing, and then never gives the reader any reminders. When the person or place is mentioned again, the reader has forgotten and feels lost, unhappy, and quits reading.

Here is the Launching Pad:

Think about the memoir, story or novel you are writing. Then think of a person who is mentioned early in the story. Imagine that the person reappears later in the story. Write one sentence reminding the reader of who the character is and of her importance. Write it so it flows smoothly into what is happening in the story but still reminds the reader of who the person is. You might refer to a distinguishing physical characteristic or action or origin to help the reader place the character.


As there are many ingredient substitutions in this recipe to transform it into a "healthy" red velvet cake, be sure to read through it first. I have not made this particular cake, but I have used applesauce as a fat substitute in other recipes with good results. Same with egg substitute. I like that this makes a large number of servings.

Red Velvet Healthy Soul Food Cake

Serves 36; 2 ½ x 2-inch pieces of jellyroll pan, or cupcakes
Cooking spray or cupcake liners 

1 18.25 oz yellow cake mix 
1 cup water 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
(dark preferred)
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce 
1/3 cup low-fat buttermilk 
3/4 cup egg substitute 
1 tablespoon red food coloring 
4 oz light cream cheese, softened 
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted 
1 tablespoon fat-free milk 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly spray an 18x13x1-inch rimmed (jellyroll) baking sheet with cooking spray, or place paper liners in cupcake pan.

Prepare cake mix using the package directions, except substituting the water and cocoa powder for the water called for in the directions; substitute the applesauce and buttermilk for the oil; substitute the egg substitute for the whole eggs; and add the red food coloring. Mix and pour into baking sheet or cupcake tins.

Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (or follow directions on package for baking cupcakes). Let cool completely, at least 1 hour.

Cream Cheese Frosting: In medium mixing bowl, blend on medium, cream cheese until smooth. Slowly add confectioners’ sugar, 1 tablespoon of milk and vanilla. Blend until smooth.

If frosting is too stiff, add milk 1 teaspoon at a time until desired consistency reached. Frost the cake and decorate with sprinkles if desired. Enjoy!

This recipe is reprinted with permission from 47 Healthy Soul Food Recipes, Copyright © 2011 by the American Heart/Stroke Association. Look for Healthy Soul Food Recipes online at

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All photos by Carol Newman, taken in La Jolla, California. 
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