Friday, January 16, 2015

On Writing Better

As creative people, we struggle with doubts and misgivings on an almost daily basis. We are trying to do something that feels inherently risky to us, that feels like taking a leap of faith. At the same time, we are not really sure whether we'll ever be able to get beyond our current level of skill. Will we become as good as we imagine ourselves to be? Or will we fall short? That will surely hurt.

And so we cringe, trying to get out of this moment of not being quite there yet. Intellectually, we know that we need to keep working at it, honing our craft till our understanding seeps into our very bones. But right now, the vision of that glorious future seems far away, and we are wrestling with the mud, trying to pick diamonds.

But in this space with which we are uncomfortable, when we admit that we are not proficient yet, is also the challenge of learning how to become better. And that's half the fun of the journey. We can teach ourselves things we need to learn. We can figure things out for ourselves or find resources that can help us. Making ourselves, adding to who we are makes the struggle worthwhile.

How do we get better at writers? By asking questions, by practicing answers, by refining our process. Do we need to start reading aloud what we've written to figure out how our words will sound to someone else? Do we need to practice writing in scenes, instead of just narrating what's happened.

In Lee Gutkind's book on writing creative non-fiction, You Can't Make This Stuff Up, he talks about the process of editing. Since writing is mostly re-writing, this is important information to keep in mind. In the hundreds of writing workshops that Gutkind has been involved in, he has listened to people praise others by saying things like "That's a great image!" or "That's a wonderful metaphor!"

But Gutkind says that when we first hear something, we need to look at it as a whole. Feedback like this can be premature. "Editing takes place in several phases, but it almost never starts with the line of prose, the sentence, or word choice." So, we may write beautiful, lyrical sentences, but if the entire piece is not structured well, we won't be able to take the readers to a place where they can appreciate our particular talents.

"So consider the blueprint, the structure and shape of your piece of writing first. You'll see that the words, images, and ideas will change as you reshape the structure of your piece, so there's no point in addressing them early on in the revision process."

Only once we know the overall form of our piece, can we sculpt it with greater precision, and add more depth and specificity. Thinking in these broad strokes helps us clarify our process. Then, we won't get stuck in trying to perfect what we've written. Instead, we'll think about what's important to do first. This will help us move ahead.

What part of your writing process can you refine? What will help you become a better writer? 


  1. love your writing and advice! this is so important. i used to fall victim to trying to refine the writing, the words too early. but so imp to get what you want to say right first, before trying to improve the how to say it. loved reading!

  2. This is wonderful! I've definitely struggled with this a lot in the last year while writing my thesis. I wish I had read this earlier!