Style and Sense: Bring Your Writing to Life

with John Gottberg Anderson

style and sense bring your writing to life

In this four-week course, you will learn to use all of your senses — not just visual — in shaping descriptive passages. Places and people will come to life. You will learn that strong verbs convey emotion far more than overworked adjectives. You will learn to keep your writing in an active voice, developing an awareness of rhythm, pace, and transitions.

Often the single greatest challenge to a writer is: How to begin? Here, you will learn how to craft an effective opening that draws your reader into the story. You will learn to write with short brush strokes that build to a crescendo. You will learn how to say more with fewer words. Most of all, you will come to embrace your personal style, developing a voice that is uniquely yours.

Learning Goals

  • To describe a place, a person or an experience by sound, smell, taste and touch — not merely with visual imagery.
  • To say more with fewer words. Choose verbs with more precision, rendering further adjectives unnecessary.
  • To write in an active voice, developing an awareness of rhythm and pace in your storytelling, and to master transitions.
  • To craft effective leads that draw your reader into the story.
  • To embrace a personal style, developing a voice that is uniquely yours.

Writing Goals

Over the next four weeks, you will apply the writing skills we introduce in the course to write and polish two pieces:

  • a 1,500-word essay, and
  • a 3,000 word essay.

These could be the start to a longer, book-length manuscript, or a completed work polished for possible publication. Plan to submit your work to the instructor 48 hours before each next class, for his review and comments.

Weekly Zoom “Office Hours”

I will offer a weekly “Office Hour” on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. EST (6 p.m. PST). (Note: This is 7 a.m. Thursday Southeast Asia time for me.)

Weekly Syllabus

Week 1: Sensory perception.

As humans, we rely heavily on our vision in identifying our surroundings and encounters. But that’s only one of our senses: We have five, and some would say six. Not to use them in your writing would be like eating soup with chopsticks. Our senses help us tell a story more effectively by bringing the reader into the heart of the action. But they are not in themselves a story: Our task is to use our senses as tools in setting the scene for our plotted tale. (A brilliant example is John Berendt’s 1994 novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.)

Assignment: 1,500 words on a destination visit, in first person. This can be a travel adventure or a simple stop at a market in your hometown. Tell a story about an experience you had there. Focus not only on the sights, but on the sounds, smells, perhaps tastes of the experience. This may be geared as a chapter in a book or as a magazine story that you hope to publish.

Week 2: Fewer words, greater impact.

Too many inexperienced writers litter their prose with adjectives, trying for elegant strings of description when a single powerful verb can carry a sentence, or even an entire paragraph. In this class, we’ll talk about how to find those verbs! We’ll also carry our Week 1 emphasis a step further, from portrayals not only of places and things, but of people we encounter.

Assignment: Revisit and revise last week’s story, expanding or condensing as you see fit. How can you tell your story in stronger words? Were any persons a part of your tale? Describe them within the context of the piece.

Week 3: The rhythm method.

If we want our story to “pop,” to come alive and stay that way, we must avoid using passive language. Developing an awareness of what it means to write in an active voice will help you establish a rhythm and pace to your storytelling. We will focus on that skill as we learn how to write an effective opening (or “lede”) to our story, and to master transitions between disparate sections of the manuscript.

Assignment: Tell another story, this one in third person and about 3,000 words in length. But your story should have a plot, moving from a tantalizing first few paragraphs to a decisive ending. This could be the opening of a longer manuscript — a book, perhaps, in which this denouement would conclude Act 1. Or it could be a stand-alone work prepared for possible publication.

Week 4: A touch of style.

What defines you as a writer? Is it your creative imagination, your intense research, your sense of humor? Whatever it may be, you don’t have to emulate anyone else. The more you come to acknowledge your own gifts and abilities, the more you’ll be in touch with the one and only you. In this final class, we’ll review last week’s accomplishments and talk about where you can go from here.

Assignment: Let’s finish up last week’s essay… and if it’s part of a longer work, keep on writing. Remember to go back over your initial essay with a fine-toothed comb, seeing where you might improve your descriptive passages, tighten up your writing with more effective verbs, placing an emphasis on using an active voice. The instructor will be pleased to offer one final critique after the class has concluded.

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john gottberg anderson


John Gottberg Anderson is a widely published American travel journalist. A former news editor for The Los Angeles Times and a senior editor for the Michelin Guides, he has written or co-authored 23 books, and hundreds of feature articles for magazines and newspapers around the world, mostly writing as “John Gottberg.”

Anderson studied journalism at the University of Oregon and did graduate work in Asian culture and history in Seattle and Honolulu. Then, as John Lennon famously noted, life happened. Still, through decades of family and professional drama, life has been a global adventure. Anderson worked not only as a journalist, but also as a cook, a musician, a ski instructor, a university professor, a carpenter, a salesman, a bartender, even a sheep shearer. He rode the Hawaiian surf, paraglided from the heights of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, rafted the whitewater of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, backpacked large portions of the Pacific Crest Trail, and bicycled the length of New Zealand. He played ice hockey in Sweden, mushed sled dogs in Alaska, studied tango dancing in Buenos Aires, created batik art in Java, and fished for tuna from a weathered dugout canoe in the Solomon Islands.

Anderson rode out the Covid pandemic in Vietnam, where he has lived since 2019. His work is frequently honored by the North American Travel Journalists Association, twice including “self-illustrated story of the year.” In 2022, his popular blog "Travels in Vietnam" (, was chosen as one of the top five independent travel blogs in America.