Writing Strategies from the Masters Part 1: To Riff or Not to Riff by Sandi Somers

“What is riffing? Is that even a word?” This is what one member of my InScribe’s local group asked when I suggested she could riff a quote she admired.

Yes, “riff” is a word. It comes from jazz and describes how one musician improvises a musical phrase of another. For example, one piece in my piano lessons was “Variations on the Theme of Three Blind Mice.” I can still mentally hear the tinkling notes like mice scampering across the keyboard…or sadness in a minor key when the farmer’s wife cut off their tails.  

Riffing is not just for music, however. It has become a common practice in writing. In writing, we can riff an author’s brilliant phrase, colourful metaphor, or unique wording. Or we can take a theological thought and write it in everyday language. The danger, of course, is that we might plagiarize, stealing the words of another. Just be aware that you can borrow without plagiarizing up to three consecutive words, not counting short words such as “a,” “the,” “but,” “in,” and “and.”

For the last several months, my local writers’ group has been riffing. We first wrote a prompt about a personal experience. Then I gave them examples from published works. Some riffs were refreshingly creative, and members commented on how this practice enhanced their writing and heightened their expressions.

How can we enhance our own writing through riffing? Here are several techniques: 

  • Write a sentence with a period after each word. This technique is another alternative to an exclamation mark: “You. Must. Not. Plagiarize.”
  • Write a one- or two-word word paragraph. After an author I was reading made a complete paragraph with the word “so,” I began experimenting with others such as “Ouch!”, “Well now!”, and “Seriously?”. These one-word paragraphs stand out and shock you into thinking more or challenging the writer’s thoughts.
  • Choose a vivid piece of writing. “The Highwayman” was a wonderful source for us to practise alliteration, rhythm, onomatopoeia, and repetition. I was so inspired by this example that I riffed a whole poem from “The Highwayman.”

In addition to these strategies, you can riff or copy other items:

  • Titles are not copyrighted. I’ve read two books called Tell it Slant, but each had a different subtitle. My own examples include a powerful title, “The Dynamics of Praise,” to illustrate how praise won the victory for Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20). I also riffed Charles Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities. My true story, A Tale of Two Shoes, tells how two school boys got their almost lookalike shoes mixed up one snowy day and how I helped solve the problem.
  • You can copy classical works in the public domain. (In public domain, copyright protection generally ends 70 years following the death of the author.) First lines are a goldmine. You might riff, “Call me Ishmael,” from Moby Dick or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” from Charles Dickens. You have a wealth of possibilities from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
  • Shakespeare has a treasure house of quotes you can riff. “To be or not to be, that is the question” (from Hamlet) is perhaps the most famous. Others include the following: “A horse, A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”, “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, and “a wild-goose chase.” Add “There’s a method to my madness” and “All that glitters is not gold.” (Surprised that all these quotes came from Shakespeare? So was I!)

Try any of these techniques to your current writing projects, or think of your own. In time, riffing will become a regular or occasional part of your writing practice.

In Part 2, I’ll include other strategies from the masters, techniques that will help you take your writing to the next level.

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