If you have always done it that way, it’s probably wrong


Helga’s Post #83: (So said inventor Charles Kettering)

It appears as if some of the 5 writers are in the midst of serious housecleaning – of their writing that is. I am one of them. Heading for the shredder are piles of manuscripts started, manuscripts critiqued by my writers’ group buddies, notes to self, and significant volumes of research for aforementioned manuscripts. I hasten to say that these tomes would be even higher had I continued the practice of printing out every page I ever wrote, every research article I ever came across.

Lucky for me – and infinitesimally for our forests – at some point I started to realize I was a paper junkie. Let’s face it, there is something gratifying about holding a piece of paper in our hands with strings of words printed that we, and only we, have created. To read it a few more times before returning it to its designated binder or other storage venue.It was an easy enough transition to make after the initial withdrawal pains. What? Don’t print it out? But easy once you go on a long trip. You want to continue writing. On your laptop. Everything you need is there with you, and you don’t need a single scrap of paper, even if you’re going to the farthest reaches of the planet. All there at the click of the mouse – every word you already wrote and all the research you were brainy enough to save on your hard drive.

But this post is not really about the transition from paper to hard drive. I was just rambling for a bit. It’s one example about the counter-productive habit of holding on to tradition. To be enslaved by it. To resist change. How it extends to everything we do in live. How tradition has a firm place in our brain and refuses to yield to our efforts to change. And yes, this includes writing.

I always thought of myself as forward thinking, as someone who is embracing change. Having conversations with my mother about her old-fashioned furniture, her fondness of displaying every keepsake she ever collected or received as a gift. Trying to convince her to de-clutter, to get rid of decade-old towels, of dishes and bowls I remember eating from as a teenager. But to no avail. Mom likes her dozens of framed and by now faded family photos, and the tiny vases with dried flowers, and she won’t ever part with the potted philodendron whose voracious growing habit is taking over the living room.

But then I reflected on my own habits. Am I really so different? I started to wonder if resistance to change influences our writing, both its content as well as our writing process. (As a footnote, is it possible that writers’ block is somehow linked to our habits and reluctance to change, to part with tradition?)

Joe’s recent post urged us to ‘kill your darlings’. Snip and snip some more. Toss out your writing if something isn’t working. You can start something new. Something better.ScaryScissors

It’s hard to do. Especially with writing that has all those lovely phrases that we are so proud of, that everyone said they just love. I believe that too is linked to our aversion to change. I know this applies to me, because when I read some old manuscripts startups, I can see the vanity in my own writing. OMG, what have I done? How could I have written such trash?

But I did. Over and over, because I refused to change. Those were my darlings. My writing was wordy. Flowery. Ineffective. Descriptive instead of showing my protagonist in action. I came across an interesting article on the website ‘Writing Commons’ about concision. Although meant for screenplay writing, it applies to all writing. Here is an excerpt:

Concision—saying more with less—is an undervalued but critical writing skill, especially when writing a screenplay.  Part of the reason that concision is so undervalued is that it seems easy but is actually quite difficult and takes skill, intellectual effort and ruthlessness (as a well-known bit of writing advice goes, you must “kill all your darlings”).

It offers an example of how to improve a scene about a man entering a bar, which illustrates the value of concision quite well. Here is the traditional version (which is how I may have written the scene some years ago):

‘SHANE, a 20 something babe with ice blue eyes and a nonchalant manner, walks into the bar, which is a cross between a TGIFridays and a dive.  He enters the room slowly, taking it all in.  He pauses before approaching the bar, where he orders a cheap domestic beer.  The bartender, almost as sad as the bar itself, fills the scratched plastic mug and hands it over.  Shane’s stance is casual, but his eyes are alert.  He looks around; assessing.  His eyes stop on a young woman.’

This would be better if Shane’s character was revealed through action rather than straight description.  The sentence about his stance just describes him standing there; a better choice would be to describe him doing something specific.  Also, unless his ice blue eyes figure into the plot, it would probably be better to describe his attitude or bearing rather than a specific physical feature that may or may not be part of the actor actually cast for the part.  The verbs used here are bland and general: “walks,” “enters,” “pauses,” “approaching.”  How different this would be if Shane stomped into the bar, accosted the bartender, and demanded a beer; the tone of the scene would be much clearer.

Finally, this descriptive passage is quite wordy. In fact, several of these sentences could be shortened, combined, or turned into fragments.  For example, “He enters the room slowly, taking it all in” could be shortened to “He slowly enters.  Observes carefully.”  Likewise, the final sentences, “Shane’s stance is casual, but his eyes are alert.  He looks around; assessing.  His eyes stop on a young woman” could be combined into “Shane’s casual stance belies his roving, assessing eyes, which stop on a young woman.”

I love this example of how to improve a simple scene. I certainly would continue reading. And I will keep it in mind when I am mired in drafting something boring or lackluster.

Do you too struggle with resisting change in your writing?


9 thoughts on “If you have always done it that way, it’s probably wrong

  1. My first drafts usually require the addition of some description during revision. Since I also regularly cut huge chunks, my final word count is always an unknown until I’ve finished several revisions. 🙂

    I read Joe’s post and thought it was probably a good thing he couldn’t see my office closet. While I don’t print out segments, I do print a copy of the completed first draft, and each revised draft until I’m finally done. I find it easier to revise on hard copies. Lately I’ve been tossing out all the ‘in between’ versions, but I still like to be able to compare the first and last ones, so the piles of paper are accumulating.

    • Carol, I would never have gotten rid of all these paper copies of years of writing and critiques, had it not been for our plans to downsize. Listing a house is a huge challenge and mountains of paper are not exactly selling features. It was hard, real challenging, to part with it all, but I am hoping that much of it is on my hard drive. As you say, revising is so much easier on hard copies. I have to learn doing without. Unless we find a place where I have my own space again to squirrel away all the paper of future manuscripts.

  2. Like you, I’ve been longing for some fresh starts. And I totally agree with your thoughts on concision (great word). Of all the 5 writers, I’m probably the worst hoarder when it comes to physical stuff – probably because I’ve lived in the same place for 34 years (that’s a lot of time to accumulate debris without the enforced sorting and tossing required when you pull up stakes). Oddly, though, when it comes to my writing I don’t mind slashing and burning. I might file away some passages or notes I still like for future thought starters, but I don’t shed a tear over deleted words. Maybe it was all those years of ‘killing my darlings’ in advertising. If you fall in love with your own words (or designs or ideas of any kind) in that shark pool, you’re going to get your heart broken so many times you’ll need a transplant.

    I also agree with Joe that the more you write the better you get. At some point, you find your voice, and maybe that’s when you turn the corner – when concision becomes an instinct, and your voice acquires a rhythm. Even if you don’t go through emotional trauma killing your darlings, throwing excess stuff away is a lot of work. Is it too much to hope that as our writing skills get better, we’ll learn to just write less sh*t that needs to be cut?

    • Thanks for your observations, Silk. I think that ‘killing your darlings’ is somewhat easier for those of us who have had to do it for years and years in our working lives (our ‘paid’ ones that is). Still, it continues to be a challenge when writing fiction. But we *are* getting better at writing less superfluous (sh*t) as you say. Our critiques of our latest drafts are living proof.

  3. I too am a paper junkie! But I did my spring clean earlier in the year so now feel all organised and de-cluttered creatively. Yes, it can be hard to let go – before I sent my novel out to query, I finally cut the first two chapters, which I loved, but I realised were description that didn’t get the novel going – I still have those chapters on the PC – not letting go completely! – but the important thing is that I got myself to cut them!

    • Good for you, Andrea, cutting your first two chapters! That’s a brave and valiant thing to do for a writer. Maybe you can use them later in a different story, or elsewhere in your current one. I believe strongly that othing we write is ever wasted. Even if we don’t use it, because we learn from it. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Pingback: Shake it up! | 5 Writers 5 Novels 5 Months

  5. I’m trying to be better about how often I print out manuscript drafts. “Better” meaning less often! Cutting those darlings is so hard to do, and I resisted the directive for far too long. I’m trying to be more careful about how I’m writing these days. I hope it will mean fewer drafts needed for future works!

  6. Thanks, JM. I am amazed how much better my writing is after I do this very difficult act of throwing out some of my favorites. But at the same time, I am trying not to restrict myself on the first draft because of the need for concision. It’s a bit of a balancing act to be brief and at the same time just write down comes naturally. Cutting can always come later – and is so much easier if it’s all on our hard drive.

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