Impulse writing

Writing that flows is often based on a solid structure.

Take the piece “Why impulse spending can be a good thing” by Katherine Rosman, who writes the Checks & Balances column about finance and marriage for the Wall Street Journal. The article is designed to read like a short story with comments, unfolding through scenes with increasing drama. We want to determine what happens between Rosman and her husband Joe, who in their struggles to mesh their opposites-attract financial styles have become persons of interest.

The article is structured in three parts. The first details a recent event, the second one that took place a while ago, the third the night the two met. All involve charity auctions. All create an orderly march backward in time, from a seemingly frivolous exchange to a defining moment. Each segment seems ordinary yet together they build toward a quiet but profound insight you’d see in the work of Anne Tyler or Anna Quindlen.

The parts consist of anecdotes, all of which bring to life the article’s theme—that contrary to popular wisdom occasional impulse spending can provide rewards to even the most budget-minded couples. Those mini stories also illustrate a greater wisdom: we can argue about spending but what we really value is not the behavior but the relationship. The real prize isn’t the money, it’s the person.

When I worked as a writing coach for a newspaper owned by the publisher of the Wall Street Journal I studied briefly with the great Roy Peter Clark. Now vice president of the Poynter Institute, Clark taught us to use the tools of fiction writers while rigorously adhering to the facts. Structuring a story that way is more than playing dress-up. It’s a process to present and order events with all of the immediacy and emotional resonance of direct experience.

It’s good to see other non-fiction writers have adopted the storyteller’s technique. Using those tools, Rosman ratchets up the conflict between spouses with a deceptive calm that shows rather than tells about their relationship. The story flows without effort. Even the ending feels natural, a surprising valentine to financial and emotional conservatives everywhere.

Talk about impulse control.