February 11, 2012

Creating a Fiction-Writing Swipe File

When doing any kind of a task, having an example to follow can help us do a better job than simply "winging it" ourselves.  Advertising copywriters use something called a "swipe file" to help them come up with ways to improve their advertising copy.  The point of the swipe file is not to steal or plagiarize the work of other copywriters, but to give the writer food for thought and examples of how other copywriters have handled similar situations.  The swipe file idea can help fiction writers, too.

Most writers are also avid readers.  As you read a book and encounter interesting bits of dialogue, description, or clever wording, take a moment to copy those words to your swipe file.  Over time, this file will grow to provide dozens or hundreds of example of clever and interesting things that other writers have written.

When you are doing your own writing, you may reach a point where you're having trouble figuring out how to describe something, or how to handle a tricky plot point.  Pull out your swipe file and have a look at what you've written in it.  You might find a line or piece of dialogue from a book you read five  years ago that sparks your imagination.  The idea isn't to steal those exact words from the other author, but rather to use them to quickly inspire you to write something of your own.  It is a more effective tool than trying to pull the book off your shelf and flip through it to find that bit you're looking for.

As your swipe file grows, you might start organizing it in ways that make sense to you based on the examples you've gathered.  Perhaps you'll have a collection of well-done bits of dialogue, or well-described fight scenes, or scenery descriptions that especially "popped" off the page for you.  When you're stuck, or just don't like the way you've written something, these examples can help you figure out how to write or rewrite what's bothering you.

Give the swipe file concept a try.  You may find it helpful.