How Not to Write

It might be time for me to take a break from reading some of the how-to writing blogs I read.

Don't get me wrong: those blogs are immensely helpful most of the time. I've learned a lot about what kinds of things are valued and what kinds of things drive agents and editors crazy, and I'm certainly not giving up reading the blogs entirely.

But the new tips that hit my Google Reader almost daily have me paralyzed over my first chapter. I've been over every line till it hurts to look any more, twisting, rewording, restructuring, trying to kill this or that potential problem. I'll think I've got a paragraph or a page or a scene in order, and a day or two later I'm back, fixing something else--and then if I give it a little space and come back, I'll notice that in my desperate attempts to alternate sentence structure within paragraphs and on the page as a whole, I've started five paragraphs in a row exactly the same way.

Among the positive feedback given me by my beta readers were comments on the strength of the story's voice. I don't want to lose that voice, especially not to over-scrupulous self-editing. How do I know it's over-scrupulous? I don't. But I'm the sort of person who can lose reason to obsession over detail--the sort of person to wind up on the verge of tears at 1 AM on a Saturday night, trying to rotate paragraph beginnings and number of commas, wondering how to cut any more conjunctions without sounding like Ernest Hemingway, no longer confident that the scenes and mood accomplish what they set out to do.

Getting published, as I understand it, requires skill and competitiveness roughly equivalent to Olympic-level sport. I'm a good writer, even--I believe--a good enough writer, but there are a lot of good enough writers and no guarantees for anyone. At some point, I've got to accept the fact that it is impossible to please all readers, even all professional readers (like agents and editors).

Am I still going to work on things like repetition issues? Of course. But there's a huge difference between controlling a character's tendency to half-smile at everything and counting the number of ands in every paragraph. I want that sane sense of balance where the goal of perfection doesn't degenerate into perfectionism.


  1. If you're in tears at 1am over commas--it's over-scrupulous.

    Find and read Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead, it's a tremendous and offbeat look at the process of writing. She makes the poignant observation that who we are as writers is not necessarily who we are as people. Who wrote that, she asks, adding, it couldn't have been me. The person of that moment in time, the part of the mind that interlocked with the heart to express--something--cannot be recreated. By all means, edit, but not at the expense of that moment (or your general well being).

    At best, as story is a photograph, an isolated, discreet moment that can never be fully recreated. What we do in revising is scraping the dust and grime off the plate, as it were--revealing the true intent of the story. If we're writing a new story, well and good. But it is a new story, not a revision. Sometimes that's what it takes. But not always.

    All that to say--don't stress. You do have a very distinct voice as a writer--that's clear from the blog. The 'writing advice' so prevalent on the website urges a basic platform of what is--frankly--trendy right now, an affected casualness and a sparse minimalism. If that's not you, who cares? What these writing tips don't tell you is that, yes, there are agents and editors willing to risk on someone new, and who can recognize true writing and true literature regardless of whether it's trendy or not.

    In case you can't tell, I feel very strongly about this, and have had to think about it a lot for myself. (May even wind up at Paradoxes tomorrow.) So, ask me questions! :D

  2. Thanks so much for the encouragement, Mr. Pond. If you do post about that, I'll be very interested to read it, especially as you have one of the clearer and more distinctive writing voices I've found on the Web. I'll think about questions and will hopefully come up with some when I'm a little more awake. :)

    I especially like the "By all means, edit, but not at the expense of that moment"--that is what I don't want to lose, the particular feel that helps make the story its unique self.

    Thanks for the book recommendation; I think the library has it and will have to look it up.

  3. Well, the post I'm preparing for today will have four more book recommendations, as in, 'these are the only books you need to read, oh, and read that Atwood book, too'. So, yeah, stay tuned for more. Now I'm off to Hog's Head...

  4. Hi Jenna,
    I was referred to your blog by your brother-in-law Andrew, because I told him I'd been busy writing my book. He said you had written your own book, and I see that my struggles are also yours.

    I get paranoid about overusing words, starting paragraphs the same, and am always trying to find a new way to say something old. After reading Stephenie Meyer's work, I have been obsessed with watching which words I use too much. Did you notice how Bella is flinching, cringing, and wincing throughout the whole series? If not, sorry. I've totally ruined it for you. But she was twitching all the time!

    Okay, end rant. Anyway, I think what you're going through is normal, but at some point you have to trust your own voice and ignore some advice-givers. Every writer has their own style, so as long as you're not overusing adverbs and attaching adjectives to every single noun, then just go with it.

    Stephen King's book On Writing is fabulous. He says one of the reasons we should always be reading (there are many reasons) is to find books by authors who aren't as good as you may be. That's always encouraging. If they can get published, why not me or you?

    Good luck with your book!

  5. Thanks, Courtney! I enjoyed your comment. Best wishes for your own writing, too!

    Repetition bothers me so little that I'm one of the few people I know who was not put off by Meyer's writing style. You're the first person I've heard talk about Bella's actions, though; most people complain about the adjectives used to describe Edward. :) I tend to repeat descriptors, so that's a big problem I'm working on.

    I've had a lot of people recommend King's book to me as well. One of these days I really need to read it.

  6. Oh yes, I remember "sparkling." I haven't read the Twilight books in forever, so I can't remember all of the nauseating words! I only reread Potter and Monte Cristo these days, though I think I'll have to reread other books too ;-) Some are too good for one read.


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