How Joining Toastmasters Improved My Writing
The following essay was contributed by DartFrog Plus author John Catan. His forthcoming novel The Substitute is due out later this year.
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As a writer, I’m always looking for opportunities to work writing into my daily life. My weekends afford me the time and head space to focus on writing, but what about the rest of the week? My day job provides writing opportunities, but the nature of data security is rather bland. I can practice using active voice in place of passive voice, but there’s little room for creative flair.
Fortunately, the company where I work has a Toastmasters club, which provides a wonderful creative outlet. You may think of Toastmasters as a speaking club, but speaking and writing share common story elements.
Write Drunk, Edit Sober*
Every Toastmasters meeting offers a chance to speak, either as a featured speaker or during Table Topics. As a featured speaker, you have five to seven minutes to give your speech and tell your story. During Table Topics, members volunteer to stand up and respond to a question. They’re afforded one to two minutes to cogently respond. There’s little chance to prepare—maybe five or ten seconds if you’re lucky—so it’s great practice for thinking on your feet as you plan your response and organize it on the fly. It’s a wild ride, because it’s stream of consciousness, with only a touch of on-the-fly control.
The prepared speech offers the chance to take your first draft and hone it. It’s a splendid opportunity to practice characterization and setting descriptions. Unlike when you write a novel, you only have seven minutes to tell your story, so using simile and metaphor are handy ways to convey a lot of detail in a short amount of time.
Writing a speech is like writing a very brief novel. Start your speech with a hook, a powerful opening that will grab your audience's attention, then move on to an inciting event to propel your story forward into the remaining two acts before providing a satisfying ending. Just as in writing, use the "Show, Don’t Tell" concept to engage the reader and make your story an immersive experience.
You could practice these skills without Toastmasters, but presenting your writing in a speech gives you a chance to receive audience feedback in real-time. Wrote something that’s supposed to be funny? You’ll know on the spot if it was. Building tension in your dialogue? Keep an eye on your audience for their reaction. You not only see if you’re achieving your intended objectives, you’ll also observe their facial reactions, which you can use when writing character reactions.
Public speaking is a great way to further enhance not just your speaking but your writing skills as well. Clubs like Toastmasters act as a sounding board for your writing and you’ll receive real-time feedback from a critical, yet supportive group.
*The quote “write drunk, edit sober” is often misattributed to Ernest Hemingway. It doesn’t actually mean you should get drunk and write. It means write your first draft freely and without restrictions, then come back later to do your editing.