This is very hush, hush. Let word of this slip out and in the dark of night (as if there is another kind of night!) the gremlins will sneak in and put glue in your typewriter, or worse yet, your brain, and any ideas will get stuck there and die a horrible death as they fade into nothingness.
How’s that for a motivator to get you sit down and write a little prose—great or otherwise? Frightened into writing? A quaint Halloween season concept perhaps, but creativity, of the sort a writer engages in, is more likely generated by motivators other than fear. Thoughtful contemplation is the first thing that comes to mind.
A painter friend of mine responded to my compliment about how I liked one of his efforts with, “Do you know how many bad paintings you have to paint to get a good one?” He was being rhetorical, to a point, but after the application of a few coatings of second thoughts, I wondered how the comment might translate to writers: “Do you know how many bad paragraphs you have to rewrite before you write a good one?” Such a cheery and cheering thought! I’m done! A goner! Fear of failure lurks in the dark hallways to reach out and tatter a writer’s mind. Argh! It’s over! Break out the razor blades and sleeping pills. Then something mysteriously clicks and you’re injected with a dose of satisfaction before the process starts over.
I say this because I’ve noticed the overuse of “platitudes of writing advice”—my term—that are presented as guidance on how to write, and specifically, how to write better. For some mysterious and unknown reasons, such platitudes are usually presented in clusters—ten being the favored number. For other activities, we think in terms of a dozen, but perhaps that number is just enough over the line to scare away writers: “Ten!? I can handle ten.” But to a dozen the brain reacts instantly . . . and negatively . . . freezes up. “Twelve. Geez, I can’t handle that!” And the writer gives up like a man dying of thirst in the desert just a few feet shy of the water pump hidden behind the cactus there.
Years ago, the singing group The Kingston Trio had a song about a fellow named “Desert Pete.” I won’t sing it here, but by way of synopsis, a fellow is dying of thirst in the desert when he comes across a water pump in the middle of nowhere. Leaning against the base of the pump is a jar of water and an attached note from Desert Pete, telling the parched wanderer not to drink the water but instead to pour it down into the pump—to wet the leathers so it will work and draw the cool, life-saving fluid to the surface from deep below. The note says to “have faith my friend, there’s water down below” and the lesson: “you have to give before you get, I’m the one who ought to know.”
Writers are the perfect audience for Pete’s advice. They tend to have a lot of faith—if you do this, that will happen, etc. That is what makes lists so attractive to writers. We constantly find ourselves in the middle of parched desert and ready to drink the jar for an extra day of misery it offers. Being naturally suspicious, writers tend to look at the note and see behind it a cruel joke—no water. Ha, ha! But before they open the jar and swallow its contents, they are also likely to look around to see if there are any skeletons lying about. Finding none, they take the chance—pour, pump, drink, and leave a full jar for the next desperate soul.
I took a gander at a recently discovered list of ten tips for writers that I particularly liked because it wasn’t billed as ten ways to improve your writing but as ten ways to help yourself stay focused on your writing. The first listed item was practical to a fault—Write. It’s another way of saying practice, practice, practice. Improvements in your writing, like so many other skills, come from practice; not from little tricks, but consequential efforts.
But a few other stereotypical items on the list I found aggravating because they were simply misleading, especially when presented like bumper sticker philosophies sans explanation. Two were downright contradictory—“avoid distraction” and “find inspiration.” It’s from what might otherwise be a distraction that I frequently discover an inspiration. That’s the trouble with such lists. We treat them as if Moses carried them down the mountain tucked in behind the other Commandments.
The key item I’d put on my list of Commandments: If it works for you, let it work for you.
Simply put, there is no Holy Grail of writing. Answers are not found in four-word platitudes. They are found in hard, continuous work. The advice to “write, write, write” contains two facets of wisdom. One says continuous effort helps you discover ways that make you a better writer. The other: continuous writing keeps you from getting worse, i.e., slipping back into bad (i.e., lazy) habits. Bad habits are tenacious. The do not die easily. They lurk around the edges of your efforts, eager to step in and reestablish themselves like thistles in a soybean field.
To incorporate a new approach or effectively apply a rule of grammar specifically or writing technique generally takes repetition of application. Like in basketball, to change the sound of the ball bouncing off the backboard to the sound of it “swishing” through the net, requires that you throw a lot of balls, and more importantly, make the effort to learn how to get better by sorting out the techniques that work from those that don’t. Skills, once established, have to be continuously honed to retain the edge needed to cut through thickets of crap to reach the goals of improvement. For a writer, the thicket of crap is ever present and fast growing choking the growth of the lazy mind and those dull edges. New strands are forever mutating into existence and in need of tending.
Another writer’s platitude (rule) that I find irksome is “don’t edit as you write.” Sorry, I can’t help myself. Trained in journalism, I learned to try to write right on the first draft simply because there wasn’t always enough time to fix sloppy writing or invest in a contemplative editing process. I suspect the time invested to exercise care in composition as you go falls short of that required to clean up the messy remains from speed. I suspect, too, that the underlying theory behind the old rule is associated with speed-induced deadlines needed to convert draft into lead type. Now it’s not so much a matter of speed as efficiency, aided by the tools of modern electronic media. That’s why I keep a pad and pen next to my keyboard—to capture thoughts that might otherwise evaporate. Of course, you could “flip” to an open electronic page to accumulate notes and ideas that sneak in the backdoor of your mind as you work. And another thing, if you don’t pay attention to getting things closer to right the first time you write, how will you improve the quality of your writing over the long term?
Obviously, there’s a distinction between the efforts of speed and efficiency between fiction and non-fiction. For the latter, the facts and history likely remain as a resource that can be mined or refined later during the editing process. It’s different for fiction. It frequently is a “here today (this instant) and gone tomorrow (or an instant from now).” Ideas can be fleeting and literally by the time you grab the notepad they can slip back into the ether. There is nothing as frustrating as the ghost of an idea that has been allowed to escape the clutches of ink on paper.
Some writer platitudes are restatements of the logical and obvious, others I’m still trying to figure out. For example: “Turn Off & Tune In.” Turn off what and tune into what? What’s wrong with a writer remaining mindful of the world around him and develop a skill to let in the interesting and potentially useful? How about paying attention to one’s environment. The really good stuff is usually discovered amongst the usual stuff. I remember the mirror in the boys’ bathroom in my long ago North Grade elementary school. As you combed your hair (we all copied Elvis Presley’s style back then) a uniformed police officer looked at you with his hand raised advising you to “Stop – Look – Listen.” Great advice for small children who would have to cross a few intersections on the way home from school. Also great advice for a writer with a tenuous hold on the germ of an idea.
My teacher back in the day I was washing my hands in front of that mirror, also told her students that rules and ideas don’t belong to you until you make them your own by putting them into your words and incorporating them into your own writing efforts. The process is deceptively simple and practical.
Printing out a list of 10 writing tips and tacking them up on your bulletin board has little value. So here’s the list. Take a look and think about how you would define each and incorporate it into your own writing. Modifications are allowed. Ideally, to make them your own, you should write them in your own words and add a paragraph of description; maybe an example or two. Challenge them. Add or subtract items you think deserve inclusion or exclusion. But think. Write. Think as you write. Writing is not throwing a bunch of gravel onto the paper and sorting out the nuggets. It’s learning to create the nuggets as part of your first draft effort. In subsequent drafts, you add, subtract, and polish them to greater perfection.
1) Write, write, write
2) Avoid Distractions
3) Turn off & Tune in
4) Don’t edit as you go
5) Use an outline
6) Set achievable goals
7) Record your progress
8) Get UP!
10) Find inspiration
Take number six for example: “Set achievable goals.” What to you is an “achievable goal” based on the realities of your circumstances? Sounds clever, but when you write down an item and analyze it, you begin to wonder: What the hell does this really mean? How does it look in use and application? How might it be specifically useable and useful to me?
Maybe an alternative approach is in order. Find material that when you read it wows you as being really good or effective. Make a serious effort to analyze why it works. Compare it to examples that—in your opinion—don’t work, and make the effort to tease from the comparison usable lessons you might employ to make your own writing incrementally better each time your fingers touch the keyboard. Writing better requires practice and thinking, and it’s this process that makes new wisdom yours.
This is not an easy assignment because writing and your reaction to it is replete with emotionality and putting it into your own words on paper is an objective effort. Writing blends separate and otherwise benign ingredients that produce your own highly flavorful cookies. When you achieve that, all the writing tips fall into place, and the process becomes a tool to achieve better results. If you think as you write, you automatically edit as you go and the process becomes less daunting. Remember, when it comes to writing, improvement usually comes in increments, not giant leaps and bounds.