I’m wrapping up two weeks of working, visiting and sightseeing in the region between Anchorage and Valdez, Alaska, and the landscape has been just about what you would imagine. Majestic mountains everywhere; waterfalls hundreds of feet high; glacier-fed lakes and streams with pure, blue-green water. What I didn’t anticipate, however, were the lessons I learned about traveling in Alaska that served as a syllabus for a sound writing process, as well.
At every turn and destination, unique rules applied; so I left the driving to my wife, Phyllis, who had negotiated these roads for nine years of her life, and I did all the commentary (which tended to make for short trips). My place in the passenger seat gave me the opportunity to consider these five writing lessons that Alaska reinforced for me:
- The day before you get up at 5 a.m. to take the once-a-day ferry across the sound, ask the folks at the terminal if the boat is sold out.
Preparation is the key that opens the door to effective writing. Develop questions in advance of your interviews and ensure you have all the facts at hand before you set out on your keyboard.
- Never book a hotel that doesn’t post photos on its website.
Visuals are crucial and can make the difference between a clear and enjoyable experience for the reader or an unwelcome stay with your subject matter. Use visuals to illustrate, demonstrate, clarify and depict the information in your written piece.
- Tap your brakes–don’t ride them—when descending a 3,600-foot mountain road or they are likely to burn out around the 1,700-foot level, which can generate a noteworthy conclusion to your journey.
As a writer, don’t push yourself so hard that you burn out. Writing is not always amenable to a schedule. You may get your best ideas and do your best composing at 10:00 at night or at 4:00 in the morning. You may need frequent breaks over longer work periods. If so, shift your schedule to accommodate your muse.
- Alaska’s state bird is the mosquito.
Protect yourself from attack and negative buzz by confirming your facts before, during and after your writing project. Then carefully peruse your document to ensure accurate punctuation and grammar. Spellcheck is a big help but won’t catch everything. It often helps to set your finished work aside for a few hours and come back to it with fresh copyediting eyes.
- All that glitters may be pyrite—or copper.
Don’t try to be someone you’re not. You may attempt to mimic the style of Raymond Chandler or Ernest Hemingway, but chances are you’ll appear to be a cheap imitation. If you want to go for the gold, be yourself.
Alaska also taught me that I can find gigantic emergency-supply-size containers of every food and condiment at Wal-Mart (everything’s bigger in Alaska) and that I should expect on any given morning to look out the kitchen window and see a moose with her baby nibbling birch leaves (a bear can’t be far behind), both humbling experiences for someone returning to Texas and the family Chihuahua.