Monday, March 14, 2011

Can Confidence In Writing Be Defined?

During my writer's group meeting this weekend, someone brought up the need for confidence in writing.

He suggested--and I agree with him--that readers enjoy a story more when they perceive that the writer of the story wrote confidently.

But, how exactly does confidence come through on a written page?

That's something I've never been able to answer. In my group, it was suggested that confidence comes from clear decision-making.

This sentence might not feel confident: "The dress was an odd shade of pink, something between grapefruit and bubblegum." The writer gets close to the idea he or she is trying to express, but doesn't quite land on it.
This sentence might feel more confident: "The dress was the color of smoked salmon." Here, the decision was made. Whether or not it matches the color the writer had in mind, the reader is left with a detail that is more precise. It feels confident. (And notice that the perception of confidence by a reader doesn't have anything to do with actual confidence in a writer.)

This example is simplified, but I think there's some truth behind it. Consistently making clear decisions like this requires a lot of expertise. When we're writing as many words as we do, it's hard to keep our mind from straying off the page at least a few times. Or, even if we are focused, there might simply be certain sections of a story that we never work on long enough to see clearly. It's good to learn to recognize those sections, to see when the writing starts to get hazy. Those are the moments that might feel insecure.

In college, I once sat in on an art critique that taught me a lot about making a work feel confident. An artist had built a beautiful sculpture out of wood but had propped it up in a flimsy way using fishing line because she didn't want the support to be too distracting. What happened was that the support was more distracting because everyone was wondering if it would actually hold. The professor suggested that the artist should have instead made the support obvious and strong because that would tell the viewer that she had thought about the problem and solved it in a way that didn't need hiding. It was a subjective decision; I can imagine that some people might have preferred a more "invisible" solution. But, the idea of not needing to hide anything was something that has stuck with me for over ten years.

What do you think? Do reader perceive confidence in writing? And, if so, what is it in the words that feels confident?


  1. I can tell the difference between a new and experienced writer, even if they're both published. The latter has a surer touch which translates into stronger, more tightly structured writing. I suppose that much of that comes from the confidence of knowing what good writing is. With the decline of editing in traditional publishing, it is becoming much more apparent when a writer is still a bit wet behind the ears.

  2. Davin, this is brilliant. This line:

    But, the idea of not needing to hide anything was something that has stuck with me for over ten years.

    That image of the fishing line will stay with me for a very long time, too, I think. It's also exactly what I need to hear right now as I do more revisions on The Breakaway and work more of the story in that I kept way too vague before because I was afraid of giving too much away - too concerned about hiding.

    I'm afraid that many readers don't see the confidence issue. Many readers mistake vagueness for literary writing and imply their own meanings and story in its place, creating their own confidence. Other writers can see through it and complain. I think there is a fine line between leaving something vague and subtle on purpose and leaving it out just because you were not confident enough to put it in. I've done this in my own writing and I'm trying to fix it.

  3. This is something I was just thinking about yesterday! I read a book written by a newbie, and many things about the writing bothered me. Then I thought I might be being too judgmental because I knew the author was inexperienced.

    Then I read a book by a seasoned author and realized she committed none of the same "errors" that had bothered me in the first book.

    One clear problem was consistency. The author in the second book did some unconventional things, such as splitting compound words into two separate words and placing periods outside of quotation marks. But she did these things consistently, so they were clearly intentional and didn't bother me. The first author did unconventional things inconsistently, so I kept flinching and wondering if it were (or feeling certain that it was) a typo.

    Another thing that stood out to me was unclear writing. If I have to read a sentence four times to figure out what the subject and object are, it probably could have used a revision.

    Unclear writing of that sort makes me feel that the writer either didn't feel like putting in the work to edit or doesn't know better.

    It's hard to say exactly what defines "confident writing," but like a confident manner in personal interaction, it's unmistakable.

  4. This is an excellent question. I have come away from a few books that made me think that their authors are confident. Other times, I am not aware of it.

    I agree with Michelle; sometimes intentionally vague descriptions can, in fact, be a confident choice by the author to indicate the character's state of mind, for example.

    But at a more fundamental level, I very much agree that an author who is confident about his/her creation makes it easier for the reader. And it goes beyond the more surface-type writing things. It goes deeper, to the person's experience in life and how he/she perceives the topic being written about, and how much thinking and living has gone into it.

    But that still leaves your question unanswered. It has done its job of making people think though, as usual.

  5. I agree that confidence is essential and is perceptible, but I'm not sure it can be defined, manufactured, or deliberately achieved.

    Confidence in anything is a lot like the punchline of a joke. If it has to be explained to you, you don't have it, and you're not going to get it from the explanation.

    I think readers sense confidence in writing the same way as they sense it in singing or painting or public speaking or everyday interpersonal interaction. There are dozens, hundreds, even thousands of tiny clues that our brains knit together subconsciously to help us form that opinion.

    And, as Michelle said, not everyone gets it either. Just as some people can't tell whether the person they're doing business with or talking to is confident, they can't always tell when a writer is confident either.

    Maybe, though, while they don't recognize that a writer lacks confidence, they still know that there's something extra good about writers with confidence.

  6. my wife and i, while reading Midnight's Children, were talking about how much we love the book and how so much of that is because Rushdie is such a confident, arrogant, writer. he knows he's good. he knows he's Rushdie.

  7. I do think that decisive writing is a sign of confidence on the part of the author, though I don't know if you can always use this sort of detail as a test. A lot of young writers are vague and when I read their stuff I'm not sure, quite, what they're trying to say and I think that's because the writer isn't sure what's trying to be said, either. But a writer who is decisive and bold is going to have a bigger impact on me as a reader. I like the Rushdie example--even if I don't agree with his choices, he's clearly not hesitant about following his muse and this isn't limited to any aspect of his fiction; Rushdie makes bold choices with everything from dialogue to large-scale formal organization (Satanic Versus has a weird shape), but he takes big steps and shows no fear.

    I also read somewhere lately a quote from an 18th or 19th century author who said that a genius will be as precise as possible so as to say exactly what he means, where a hack will be as vague as possible to disguise that his work has no meaning.

  8. Yes! I'm all for writing with confidence.

    See, I'm not sure if it's just me, or where I'm at with my work and how I perceive it, but I'm starting to lean toward the notion that not everyone's going to get every story I write, so why not just write the ones I want to and let the readers make what they will of them? Ceasing to care what people think of your stuff, methinks, is the first step along the road to writing with confidence.

    Well, that, and ruthlessly squashing that niggling voice that wonders whether your stuff is all crap. I take a lead pipe to that voice whenever it surfaces.

    P.S. Oh, Genie, standard British style is to leave punctuation outside the quotation marks in quoted text. As in: Did she really think, as George had clearly stated, that I was "ineffectual"? (Terrible example, but you get the idea.)

  9. Jane, that's a good point that readers can tell regardless of publication. In my experience a story can be enjoyable, even if the writing doesn't feel confident. But, when I do feel like I'm in good hands, I'm more willing to follow the writer to more distant places.

    Michelle, that's interesting that, in your case, your hiding things because you're saving them for later. I wouldn't have thought that was a problem, but maybe that does lead to being vague as well. And, regarding your second point, isn't it weird that readers can pick up on this? It fascinates me.

    Genie, Yeah, consistency was the other part of confidence that I came up with too. If you see someone doing something unusual the first time, you might not be sure if it's on purpose. But, if you see them choosing to do it over and over again, you start to trust that they know what they're doing. You don't question it.

    Yat-Yee, you make a good point that in a lot of books confidence isn't an issue. Sometimes I feel secure in someone's writing, sometimes I don't, and sometimes I'm not aware of it one way or another. That's okay for me too.

    Nevets, it's always frustrating to me to think about elements that can't be defined. Maybe that's the scientist in me. Even if it involves a thousand little elements, I always try to figure out what those elements are. I'm not sure it makes me any better as a writer, but it's my nature.

    Chiwan, I know I'm Rushdie too.

  10. Scott, that's a perfect quote at the end there. If I lack confidence, I often try to hide things and hope that people don't notice. It feels defensive, in a way, and when some little bit gets uncovered, it seems to have a cascading effect. Hmm, now I seem to be talking about cleaning my house rather than writing a book, but you get the idea.

    Simon, "ceasing to care" has been the biggest help to my writing in this last year. I've stopped submitting (except very rarely when the mood takes me) and I'm just writing for my own pleasure. I have never liked my writing as much as I do now.

  11. @Domey - Don't think of it as elements that can't be defined. Think about it in a chaos theory frame of reference: the elements can be perfectly defined by simply grasping all the variables involved.

    Of course, there is a nearly infinite number of variables, so attaining that goal will likely remain elusive.

    But, since the individual points are included within the overall pattern, your impression of the overall pattern will effectively give you the same end result as needling around for all the little points, but with less predictive accuracy.

  12. @Simon - I think you're right that a lot of it boils down to the, "Eh, I don't care," mindset. I took that approach with both Notes pieces.

    "Not everyone will get this, not everyone will like this, but it's what I'm writing."

    Of course, sometimes you have to bluff that feeling. But I think part of confidence is also trusting your bluff.

    "Okay, so I actually sort of do care if people like this, but I'm going to write it anyway."

  13. Nevets, I only get to the "I actually sort of do care if people like this" after I've written something. While I'm writing it, there's just me and the story; me alone with the writing and nobody else is allowed in the room.

  14. Scott's quote from the unknown author re genius/precision/vagueness is spot on.

  15. Davin, lovely post! Thanks for such a thoughtful approach to such a slippery topic.

  16. Perhaps confidence and "clarity" could be interchanged here, but nonetheless, I agree that there is a stronger way to write.

  17. Ah, I call it 'direct' writing. David Sedaris and Maggie Estep are masters of it. There is a coarse quality about it, often. At least, that's what I've noticed.

  18. Interesting thoughts. I never really thought about it in terms of confidence. I thought of it more in terms of...tightening my prose. My rough drafts tend to be rambling pieces. I don't have an outline, so I just type and see what happens. When I go back and revise, however, I tighten everything else. I take decisive action, though I could see where a reader may sense a lack of confidence in some of my writing. The truth is, I don't always have the confidence, and I'm sure at times, it shows through in my writing.

    This is a great post, though, and the final image you've left us with, as others have mentioned, is perfect and will go a long way of helping me as I constinue to write and revise. Thanks so much!

  19. I think you have something there.

    A lot of my pet peeves could be seen as being caused by writers that aren't confident in their own work.

    Underestimating reader intelligence = underestimating own ability to explain something first time around.

    Hazy voice = writers who doesn't have confidence in own voice and tries to replicate someone else.


  20. Carrie C, Thanks for stopping by and reading!

    Liza, like I mention in the post, I do think clarity is a big part of the perceived confidence in writing.

    McKenzie, "direct" is also a good word for it. And, maybe a reader is less annoyed when the writing is direct.

    April, thank you for your thoughts. I think for me the "confident" writing does come in during the revision stage as well. It's not actual confidence I think readers are sensing, but there is a certain security there, and it makes sense that the security would come in during revisions.

    Misha, Underestimating reader intelligence is another great example, and I think that has a huge effect on what I'm talking about here. Thank you for mentioning it!

  21. Confidence in writing... I never thought of it as confidence... but my editor taught me to remove words like "seemed" ... it seemed that... etc... and be more declarative. That's confidence. So, after I finish a piece, I have a list of words that I scan the document for, and reinforce my decisions... and I guess, my confident voice.
    Loved this post.


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