Monday, May 3, 2010

Maybe You're Already Doing It

As I start this post, I realize that the idea of what I want to post about isn't totally clear in my mind.

Some of you may know that I've been looking for a job. I'm not currently jobless, but I do feel that I will be ready to move on from where I am in a few months.

For my future, I currently have several different jobs that I'm considering:professor in a community college where I would be mainly teaching, professor in a liberal arts college where I would also run a lab, consultant in a think tank, and something called a program officer that deals with the distribution of funds to other research scientists.

This last week, I had the opportunity to have lunch with a program officer, and the more she told me about her job, the more I realized how excited I would be to have it. It seemed to be the perfect combination of tasks that I love doing with a minimal amount of stuff that I don't like doing.

And, for some reason, that struck a chord with me when I thought about my writing.

I think so often as I'm trying to improve as a writer I force myself to do things that I see other people doing. I'll try to improve my dialog, for example. Or, I'll try to tell less and show more.

But, I wonder if maybe writing what I'm naturally resistant to isn't such a good idea after all. In other words, just as there's a job out there for me that makes use of those tasks I love without the tasks I hate. Maybe there's a readership out there that appreciates my natural tendencies in writing.

Must we develop every writing skill out there? Or, does the lack of skill in a certain area help us steer our own writing in a unique way that might also fill a niche?

Note added later: Some of the comments here say what I tried to say much better than I did here.


  1. We must develop the skills necessary to best tell the story on which we are working. Even if you become proficient with every tool in the writing toolbox, you do not need every tool on every piece.

  2. I think you need to learn every skill before you can decide you don't like them or don't need them. Even with your job metaphor - you would still need to know how to do the things you don't want to do, even if you very rarely have to do them.

  3. I'm not sure you need to learn every skill. For example, how many careers do you need to try before finding the right one?

    When you hit the thing that gives you a buzz, stick with it. That doesn't mean, ignore the rest as you can always learn something, but don;t try and be proficient in all of them.

  4. The beauty in writing comes from individual voice. Write, think, feel. Develop the tools you need on the fly. An accountant may need to know how to use the copy machine, but that doesn't require total knowledge of it.

    I have witnessed incredibly moving prose beaten to death with 'tools' until it no longer held the same meaning, nor was as powerful.

    Don't overwork your writing or yourself. It's a joy to write. Let it flow.

  5. I do think we can edit the voice right out of our work. I'm fighting that right now in revisions, ending up with some prose that is so technically correct my voice has been pretty well obliterated. I'm having to go back and loosen it up a bit to get my natural flow back.

    In my opinion, in writing as well as in the rest of life, we just have to go with our natural instincts sometimes, even if it's against the conventional rules.

  6. Davin, the more I write and the more I converse with writers whose work I admire, the more I see how important it is to know the basic rules and leave the rest up to yourself. The more I try to conform myself to others, no matter what I'm doing in life, the unhappier I am, and the less I excel.

    Of course, this is always easier said than done, because even as I write my current project, I'm constantly worrying about if it's following the damn rules. I hate those rules. It is one reason I've got to read less in the blogosphere and just write. Although it's good to discuss what makes writing good, I think there can be too much discussing how we SHOULD be writing. At least, for me, it has steered me in the wrong direction so many times.

  7. Wow, well, let me first thank everyone for commenting on a subject I did not seem to describe clearly AT ALL. As Bethany and Rick pointed out, my logic doesn't make much sense. BUT, Martin, Dannah, Jamie and Michelle are all helping to really clarify what I was trying to say.

  8. Someone once told me - you could have all the tools necessary for writing, but still not be a storyteller. Anyone can be taught to write. It's the voice and style that can't be learned.

    In my experience, I've loved books were the author weaves their own magic, inserting themselves between the lines.

    Follow the beat of your own drum. People will follow.(Hugs)Indigo

  9. I think that the uniqueness of writing and the ability to tell a good story isn't necessarily dependent on your skill set and knowledge. It is, to a degree, but not knowing EVERY trick in the book has not stopped some very good writers from writing. Using adverbs will still get you published. It's all about the way you use the techniques you have to tell the story you're trying to tell. If those things come together well, then you're fine.

    Honestly, I think there's so much advice and so many rules out there that it would be impossible to use them all-- they quite often conflict with each other.

  10. Is this really about "rules" or is it about trying techniques that we maybe don't do well and therefore are hard and unpleasant for us? I think that if you are trying for something in your writing and it's not coming because of some weakness in craft, you should work on that weak area so you can accomplish what you want to write. I also think that, the more tools you have at your disposal, the more subtly you can work your material and the more rich you can make your finished work. My analogy is with learning the violin: spiccato is a bitch to learn, but once you learn it, it opens up a lot of options for you and makes certain types of repertoire possible where it wasn't before. Certainly you're smart enough to work around the limits of your craft, but why would you want to do that? If you know there are limits to your ability, why on earth would you turn your back on the creative possibilities to be gained by expanding your limits? Does that really run counter to "being true to yourself?" The idea of "My work is flawed, sure, but it's all me" is, you know, kind of lazy. Don't we expect more than that from ourselves?

  11. I think the key word here is "craft" just because you know how to use certain techniques doesn't mean they are appropriate for every piece.

  12. I hate doing things I don't do well - bet that most of us do. I'm weak at setting the scene and description. I don't actually want to get too proficient at it because reading detailed description bores me. Really bores me. A little done well is lovely – key words ‘well done’. So I practice, overwrite the details on purpose, and sometimes there is a sentence or phrase that actually works, most of the time none of it is worth saving so I don’t. ‘Not too bad’ occasionally is making me hate it less. The more I practice this or any of the rules or ‘craft skills’ of writing, the less conscious I am that I’m writing ‘description’ or ‘dialogue’ or whatever and the more I can get back to just telling the story.

    This was a great topic, Davin. I’ve wondered how other writers handle it. Also reminds me that good critique is not – “this is how I [or my favorite writers] do it, therefore is also the way you should

  13. All really good comments already. I agree with Rick and Bethany, best learn the necessary skills to be a storyteller and use varying degree of those skills to get the story you want to tell on the page.

  14. It has always been my own personal practice, that if I love the job, the crappy stuff doesn't matter.

    I hate math, can't do it to save my life, but I was a waitress for a long time and was very good at it. Sure, I had to use a calculator, and the bartender always had to check my checks, but I always had fun and I always had a lot of money.

  15. Huh. I'd never thought of it that way before, but perhaps you're on to something.

    Okay, I love well-crafted prose. I always notice workmanlike writing, overuse of adverbs, clunky exposition, stilted dialogue... but some of the biggest sellers in history have been guilty of those things. Really, Mr. Brown and Ms. Meyer ain't winning awards for their prose, but they sure are raking in the bucks. Which tells me that there's room for us all in the book world.

    Now, if I can write a bestselling plot while maintaining my own standards for prose, I will be a happy, happy man.

  16. Sometimes I think I need to learn everything and use it proficiently. But, my brain doesn't work around some concepts. And others are specific to a genre and target audience.

    I still soak up every piece of info, but lately I've been more picky about what I use and what I store for later reference. It doesn't all fit right when I try it the first time.

    As Scott mentioned some time ago about not getting a specific concept his Agent was trying for, then one day he thought about it differently and suddenly; insight.

    I'm that way with certain techniques. Others, I just know I'll never be able to do. Like telling jokes in a humorous scene, or using prose for scene descriptions. And I'll never be a mystery writer because I don't express subtlety too well. So I focus learning those skills that I know I can be proficient at.

    Sometimes I have to come up with my own workable style that fits me. And yes, I feel writing technique is much like job hunting. Just because it pays well doesn't mean it fits your personality.


  17. I love this post. We are so wrapped up in the rules all the time and the truth is, one size never fits all. While I believe you want to be cognizant of the craft and rules, at what point do they actually infringe on your voice? There's a balance to be found, I believe. Thought-provoking post, though.

  18. "Maybe there's a readership out there that appreciates my natural tendencies in writing."

    After reading this, I had a vision of a solitary writer halfway around the world from his/her suitable solitary reader. How do they connect? I keep thinking that through the amazing freedom blogging offers me, those far-flung natural readers will somehow show up, and many have, but is there something more active I should be doing? Hmmm.

  19. My daughter and I made a backyard skating rink this past winter and we had fun learning to stand up on skates. When the rink melted we started going to open skating at an indoor rink.

    The fun didn't last long. Sure we could move without falling but others were doing tricks! We wanted to do tricks, too, but that meant work. Getting way out of our comfort zone. Lessons, practice, falls.

    We haven't mastered every trick out there and don't plan to, but we get a lot more out of skating because we challenged ourselves to learn and do more.

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  21. Currently, along with writing, I am learning photography. I noticed my photography looks worse now, as I apply the concepts of metering, light, aperture, bracketing...then it did when I just hit green button and took a shot! But I do know, it WILL get better, and be better once I learn how to use the techniques properly. My 'voice' in photos still comes out in what I am shooting. I believe my voice in my writing has greater colour and contrast from studying and learning the craft.
    Great post!

  22. Coming into the discussion as a newbie writer, I can easily say there are alot of things I do not do well (yet). For me, that means I have to attempt and learn how to do these things, even if they are difficult for me to do naturally or feel uncomfortable (i.e. less creative). With time however, I believe that I'll be able to write better because I have all these tools to access. I don't think we can ever be great at every aspect of writing, but we can be at least aware of how to overcome the areas where our writing is less than optimal. I guess I'm trying to say that while there might be aspects of writing we don't particularly enjoy, we need to at least have a basic understanding of them for the few times when they become necessary.

  23. I like what Dannah said. I worry that sometimes we critique or standardize ourselves until we all sound the same. I particularly think this is true in plotting: we often normalize based on feedback. So while I think it's important you stretch yourself as much as possible, you also need to choose your style and tools carefully. I think it's like painting: I might be good with acrylic but terrible with oil or watercolor. It's important to try them and test my technique, but ultimately I'll trust that acrylic is where I belong.


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