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What Julia Sugarbaker Taught Us About Writing

I was so sad to wake up this morning to the news of Dixie Carter’s death. I loved watching her on Designing Women when I was a kid–I even went through a phase where I was sure I’d be an interior designer. Her portrayal of a sophisticated, intelligent and feisty Southern woman was hilarious and touching. And of course she certainly had a way with words.

I know these are speeches, but they were words on a page first. and I think Julia’s many rants actually hold some good lessons for any kind of writing. In honor of one of the great television characters of my childhood (and one of my favorite female characters ever), let’s look at what makes Julia’s tirades so memorable:

  • Passion – if you can’t get excited about your subject, no one else will.
  • Details – “…12,000 people jumped to their feet for 16 and one-half minutes of uninterrupted thunderous ovation as flames illuminated her tear-stained face.” Tell it, girl! The way Julia paints a picture, I almost felt like I was in the audience at that fictional Georgia beauty pageant.
  • Narrative arc – Julia reels her listener in, steadily builds up, smacks you over the head with a dramatic climax and slams the door on your face with an unforgettable ending. A master storyteller, even when–or perhaps especially when–she’s not pleased with you.
  • Plain language – Julia is an intelligent, wealthy business owner, but her vocabulary isn’t clouded with grandiose fluff. She chose her words carefully and uses them to maximum effect. She doesn’t try to sound impressive and powerful, she just is.

RIP, Dixie.

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I write what I know (and love). Mostly higher education, writing and public relations.