Monday, 16 December 2013

The Best Way To Improve Your Writing

There’s only so much you can get out of preparation. 

If you want to teach someone to swim there’s certainly no harm in explaining the basics to them and giving them an idea of what to expect, but when it comes down to it there’s no substitute for getting in the water.

In fact, explaining nothing and giving them a shove is often the best method. Certainly the quickest.

Will they panic and flail around making things worse? Most likely, yes. But they’ll figure it out. They won’t drown (even if it feels like they’re going to). 

With writing—and pretty much everything else—preparation only gets you to the edge of the swimming pool. The rest you can only learn by diving in.

The feeling that you’ll be much better if you delay getting started to study up on the subject, see what the experts have to say, pick up a few pointers, is often less to do with a well-thought out strategy and more to do with fear.

And, ultimately, it just isn’t anywhere as useful to think about what might happen than it is to just do it. 

If two medical students take their final exams and both pass, but one is top of the class and the other is bottom, who do you think will fare better once they get out into the real world and start practicing medicine?

I can assure you they will both be equally terrible. Patients will fear them (with plenty of reasons to do so) and nurses will roll their eyes. Mistakes will be made and lives will come very close to being lost. It won’t matter that one was able to remember the symptoms to a hundred tropical diseases and the other took a biochemistry degree for extra credit. Real learning comes from doing. Expertise comes from doing it a lot.

This doesn’t mean preparation is useless, but often the point of it isn’t quite what we’re led to believe. In many cases it isn’t for your benefit.

If lots of medical students are going to apply for the same top jobs then you need a way to separate them. If how good they are at being a doctor is yet to be determined, you have to rely on other factors.

Similarly, a guy who goes to an interview for a job in a factory making cardboard boxes will dress in a suit and tie. Not what he’ll be wearing if he gets hired.

For writers, writing queries has little to do with being a good write; it’s just a way to thin the herd.

My point is that knowledge is only as useful as the use it’s put to. In the above examples it’s useful to the people assessing you: the gatekeepers. 

Most of the stuff that will help you personally can only be accessed via personal experience. You’ve got to figure it out for yourself.

That’s not to say other people’s experiences can’t be illuminating, but by its nature second hand insight never gives you the full picture.

It’s very easy to make something seem essential by only providing the evidence that supports the theory. A lot of books on the craft of writing do this, although maybe not always intentionally.

If I told you that I had studied the best-selling books of the last year and had discovered they all contained Ingredient X and for your book to be successful you too should include this ingredient, that can seem like a reasonable suggestion; especially if I can provide lots of examples quoted from these bestsellers.

As an example, let’s say my Ingredient X is that all the successful books I’ve analysed have all had a beginning, middle and end. Not exactly revolutionary.

Now, are there any successful books that don’t follow this structure? Yes, a few. There’s always going to be other ways of expressing ideas. But by and large the top books that we all know and love use this structure, and so should you.

Fair enough, you might think, probably worth considering.

But there is an additional question you should ask yourself. Are there any books that use this structure that aren’t successful?

Any books with Ingredient X which were bloody awful?

I think we all know the answer to that question, it’s just that we don’t often think about it. The successes are much more visible than the failures, which sink into obscurity (if they even get that far).
So while it’s impressive that the top five grossing films of the year all have an inciting incident on page 22 of their scripts, you have to bear in mind that far more movie scripts that had an inciting incident on page 22 made no money at all.

Which is to say as instructive as this kind of information might be, it isn’t the thing that makes your writing good. 

That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth knowing. A doctor has to know which end of the syringe to stick in the patient, but they won’t know how to do it without causing pain by reading up on theory. You gotta stick needles in peoples. And they’re going to get bruised the first few times, and they’ll let you know about it very loudly.

And that’s how you’ll get better.

So all knowledge apart from the basics isn’t worth pursuing? 

Actually, quite the opposite is true. It’s very helpful to read up on the craft of writing as much as you can. Not to get good through some shortcut or to suddenly become a kung fu master like Keanu in The Matrix. It doesn’t work like that (sadly). 

But within all the information out there, there will be the occasional nugget that will turn on a switch in your head and allow you to evolve your way of thinking. What this golden nugget of truth will be for you is different from what it might be for me. No one can know what you personally need to hear to turn on that switch, so what we get is a mass of all the possible information and it’s up to you to sift through it. 

I’ve read a lot of books on the craft of writing. Most of it was obvious and made little impression. But every now and again something stands out. For me, the first thing I learned that really made me change how I wrote fiction was the idea that actions reveals character. This small piece of advice made me want to try things out on the page to see what I could do with it.

It didn’t make me a great swimmer, but it got me in the pool. 

For you it might be something else. Finding those ideas without knowing what you’re looking for can be a long, slow process, but it will be rewarding (eventually). 

In the mean time, don’t wait—get in the pool and splash around.  If you find yourself sinking, don’t panic. Just hold your breath till you feel something firm beneath your feet, and then push off. You’ll always make it back to the surface.
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.
Will be back in the New Year. Have a good holiday!


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Some of that knowledge is better to acquire while you are doing. Show don't tell doesn't make much sense unless you are actually writing and can see it in your own work.

Karen S. said...

Another good thing, is to read your timely and productive posts to further our adventures in writing, when we stop, read and proceed with what we've gathered. Thanks for bringing us just what we need!

Leanne Dyck said...

Most of us what to be best-sellers tomorrow. But much is gained through building your author career one word at a time.

If you cut corners. It will look like your corners have been cut off.

And besides we're in this game because we love to write. So spending years writing should feel like heaven not hell.

Sarah Allen said...

This is exactly how its worked for me. It's not the magic key that helps, but the way somebody says something or explains something that makes you finally go, "I get it!"

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

Al Diaz said...

I laughed at delaying getting started has more to do with fear than with strategy. THAT, my friend, is century-distilled wisdom and should be written in neon signs in every writer's home..and some dragon caves as well, thank you very much.

Sarah Foster said...

I've read a lot of books on writing as well, and for the most part didn't learn all that much from them. What I found they did more often was to motivate me to start writing.

Denise Covey said...

Great advice. I think the best way to learn the craft is to keep on writing those short stories and novels. D

Rachna Chhabria said...

I think the best way to put everything we learn about writing into practice is by actually writing. That's when we learn from our mistakes, learn to get critical and see the mistakes objectively.

Jay Noel said...

I feel the same way about failure. I've always learned so much whenever things didn't go right. I mess up a lot, but that means I'm more wiser for the wear.

See you in 2014!!!

Rusty Carl said...

Good words. I did learn to swim by being tossed in the pool. It worked out for me. I tend to read lots of books on writing too. And you're right, almost all of them say things that painfully obvious - still, it seems like the best ones always find something that is mind blowingly insightful in there somewhere... at least to me.

Lexa Cain said...

I know I'm guilty of too much preparation. I can think of a bunch of reasons not to work on my WIPs, and obviously that isn't getting me anywhere. On the other hand -- I'm a Champion Procrastinator! (I have to be grateful for something. lol)

mooderino said...

@Alex - you move into a different gear once you start doing.

@Karen - thanks.

@Leanne - Ah, the process, the wonderful, horrible, process.

@Sarah Allen - finding the magic key in the big pile of keys is the tricky part.

@Al - Do dragon caves have electrical outlets?

@Sarah - there's something comforting about reading about writing (and avoiding writing).

mooderino said...

@Denise - got to get your hands dirty.

@Rachna - the sooner you get the words on the page the sooner you can work out how to make them better.

@Jay - failure gets a very bad rap.

@Rusty - every book on writing I've read made a lot of good sense at the time. It's only when I tried working it in that I find out what doesn't work for me.

@Lexa - I feel like I could challenge for that championship.

LD Masterson said...

Okay, I'm fired up to write. But now I'm afraid to go to the doctor.

mooderino said...

@LD - they're not all bad. That Frankenstein was very forward thinking. And Dr Jekyll had a great bedside manner.

Rahul Banyal said...

Great post, Advice applies in learning any type of craft.

mooderino said...

@Rahul - Pretty much works for everything.

scott grin said...

your blog is great. Having such a wonderful blog to read, I really get something special in the information.essay writing

Shah Wharton said...

Oh I only wish I could be a planner, or even a doer, instead I'm whiner and a procrastinator (I beat you Lexa!). I do this until do my own head in, and there's no way of avoiding the inevitable. But once I'm in, I'm glued! :) Great post.

Have a super Christmas and lucky 2014

cleemckenzie said...

There's no end to this learn by doing. It takes patience and persistence and a very thick skin to be a writer. I knew about the two P's. I hadn't figured in the skin part. Thanks for another great post.

mooderino said...

@Scott - glad you like it.

@Shah - cheers, and to you too.

@lee - if I could just figure out a way that didn't require hard work...

Gina Gao said...

The best way to learn something is to go actually do it.

mooderino said...

@Gina - and then do it again, and again...

Anne R. Allen said...

I definitely know some writers who spend more time reading books about writing than actually doing it. I also know a lot of writers who waste a huge amount of time talking their stories instead of writing them. What they need is better balance. Writing reams of prose in a vacuum isn't good either. You need to know something about craft and then you need to get critiqued along the way, or you may spend a lot of time putting words on paper that make no sense to anybody but yourself. But I agree, doing something--and making lots of mistakes--is the only way to fully understand a process.

Lady Lilith said...

So true. Have a happy 2014.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Exactly. This is a profession that can only be mastered by doing. Happy New Year.

mooderino said...

@Anne - the longer you wait to take the plunge the harder it gets. Helps to have someone give you a push.

mooderino said...

@Lady Lilith - thanks, you too.

@Donna - Hope you have a good one.

The Armchair Squid said...

Words of encouragement - a fine way to start the new year.

Happy 2014!

Miranda Hardy said...

Very inspiring words. It's important to learn, but also important to try.

Have a great new year!

Trisha F said...

I'm definitely not afraid to dive on in when it comes to writing - but for 2014 my challenge will be to actually focus on revision instead of my beloved spewing out of words.

mooderino said...

@Squid - Hope your 2014 is a good one.

@Miranda - You too!

@Trisha - helps to get stuck in with revisions too.

Beverly Diehl said...

Good tips here.

I also like writing books because often they push me to try that golden nugget in my own WIP - right now, right this minute - and what does it look/sound like, if I do?

Corinne OFlynn said...

Happy New Year! I love reading and thinking about craft and deconstructing good books to see how they did it. But yes, the only way to improve your writing is to do it.

Elise Fallson said...

Just stopping by to wish you an excellent new year. I really mean that. Also, I miss reading your posts.

mooderino said...

@Beverly - cheers.

@Corinne - I love reading about writing, but sometimes I have to stop so I can actually put some words on the page.

@Elise - very sweet of you to say so. I expect you won't have to wait very long.


Caitlin Lane said...

I've never been afraid to take the plunge with writing. I've dove headfirst into notebooks and keyboards and little sticky notes on my phone without hesitation, but I've finally reached an obstacle that I'm hesitant to even dip my toes into; querying. I've been searching sample queries, reading up on what caught agents eyes, and opening up and closing Word a few times, but not actual writing of the query letter.

mooderino said...

@Caitlin - I think that's a very reasonable concern. But a lot of querying comes down to luck, not just whether the agent is interested in your idea and the state of the market, but things like what mood they're in when they read your query (Have they had their coffee? Have they had too much coffee?).

A short and clear query sent to a lot of agents is all you can do, the rest is in the hands of the coffee gods.

Crystal Collier said...

Okay, that's it. I'm dedicating my life, and those of the scientists locked in my basement to developing this factor X. Then we can sell it and make billions and take over the universe!!!! Or maybe just buy a lifetime supply of cheese. It's sixes. =)

mooderino said...

@Crystal - maybe factor X is a cheese. Now we just have to find the right cracker...

Rick Watson said...

It's easier said that done. My writing has evolved, but I've spent a great deal of time studying, reading, and of course, writing.
It's like anything else you want to get good at, it takes practice.

mooderino said...

@Rick - reading about the subject certainly helps (and is fun), but it helps most when you combine it with doing.

Lydia Kang said...

Excellent post, Moody. Tweeting!

Pk Hrezo said...

Totally agree. We can read every craft book out there but it won't make a bit of sense ti we've fumbled our way thru a story. I've also found one of the greatest teachers for me has been critiquing other's work. Picking out what's not working in other stories helps me identify it in my own work.

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