In this series of posts, I want to talk about some of the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve tried to improve my writing. Of course, improvement is an ongoing process. I’m fairly sure that I’m better than I was several years ago, but I know that I still have a very, very long way to go. Every writer’s journey is different – just like every person’s life is different – but I do hope that I can share some of the lessons I’ve picked up amidst all the twists and turns.
So what do I mean by think less and do more? It’s a little glib, I suppose, but it does catch the eye, which is, after all, the purpose of a title. What I do not mean is for you to write without thinking. Writing without thinking is not only almost impossible but also highly unlikely to produce good results. What I’m concerned about isn’t thinking so much as overthinking.
There are several ways that we can get ourselves into trouble through overthinking:
- Focusing too much on studying the science of writing as opposed to practicing the craft of storytelling.
- Becoming a slave to perfection.
- Ruminating on past mistakes and potential problems.
Writing is often considered an art, but it is not devoid of science. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this is in the minutiae of punctuation and grammar. A certain modicum of skill in punctuation and grammar is necessary for any writer. A reader cannot enjoy a story if the punctuation and grammar are so poor that they cannot even understand what has been written.
However, the science of writing extends beyond the figurative crossing of t’s and dotting of i’s. An almost unfathomable amount of fiction has been written over the years. As with any field, a great deal of it has been quite poor. Yet some of it has been truly exceptional. These exceptional stories have been the subject of countless analyses, most of them geared toward identifying what made them so good. A resourceful writer will almost certainly attempt to take advantage of this research to improve the quality of their work.
There are writers who will spend years – even decades –studying the science of writing, and this is certainly a worthwhile endeavour. However, if you wish to be a writer, and not a literary scholar, then it is necessary to remember that your goal is to tell your story, not simply study how others told theirs. It is one thing to study how something is done. It is quite another to actually go out and do it.
Allow me now a moment to confess. In my younger days, I was quite obsessed with trying to attain a sort of technical perfection in my writing. I was particularly concerned with identifying what I believed to be the optimal styles and structures for telling different kinds of stories. I won’t say that I wasted my time – I first began to dabble in different styles and genres because of this – but I didn’t find what I was looking for.
There was no perfect style. There was no perfect story structure. There were rules – so many rules – yet all too often they were broken to wonderful effect. What I learned, in the end, was that the great writers I’d examined all wrote in a way that best served the stories they wanted to tell. Moreover, they’d learned by doing. They hadn’t attained their skill through simply studying the science of writing. They’d achieved it by taking what they’d learned from studying the science of writing and applying it by practicing the craft of storytelling.
Let’s try an analogy. Most of us are familiar with how to build a dinner table. On a conceptual level, it isn’t a very difficult task. But how many of us would be able to build a good one the first time we tried, even with a solid amount of studying under our belts? Not many, I think.
Telling a good story is a lot like building a good dinner table. You’d never try to write a story without some study of the science behind writing, just like you’d never try to build a table without thinking about it first and researching a few methods. But knowing how to write a story doesn’t guarantee that you’ll write a good story anymore that knowing how to build a table guarantees that you’ll make a good table. It helps, don’t get me wrong, but there are some skills that can only truly be learned and mastered by practicing – writing is one of them.
If you’re a fiction writer, then the goal of your writing is to tell a story. You can study the science of writing, the techniques of storytelling, but the craft of storytelling cannot be mastered by mere observation and study. There are rules and guidelines and tips and tricks, but every story is different. The only way to identify what advice applies to your story is to write that story. You’ll make mistakes – I know I do. But you’ll also learn what works for you and which techniques and structures from the science of writing can best serve the story you wish to tell.
So by all means, study the science of writing, but don’t forget that the craft of storytelling must be practiced if you want to master it.
It’s easy to become a slave to perfection. Every writer knows that once the final edits are in and the book is published, then that is what the reader sees. And no good writer wants to put out garbage. No, every good writer wants to tell the best possible story. There’s nothing wrong with seeking perfection in prose. The mistake comes from thinking that you will actually achieve it.
I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve stared at a sentence or paragraph and wanted to tear my hair out in frustration. It might be an awkward turn of phrase or perhaps a poorly chosen word, but there are times when something just screams out that the writing isn’t good enough yet. So I go back to the drawing board, I take the passage in question apart and try to improve it. Does it need a little more punch? Is it too wordy? Does it flow nicely off the tongue? I don’t want the passage to be good – I want it to be perfect.
But let’s be realistic here. No story is perfect. No sentence is perfect. No writer is perfect. If you can’t say that a story is finished until it is perfect, then you will never finish even a single story. At some point, you have to draw the line and say no more. Enough is enough. This isn’t to say that editing is bad. No, editing is a good thing. Going back through your work (either on your own or with the assistance of an editor) can help ensure that the grammar and punctuation are up to a good standard and that the story is well written and self-consistent.
The urge to go back and revise is natural. A good writer wants to show readers their best, each and every time. So how do you know when to let go of a story? How do you know when enough is enough? Unfortunately, there are no simple rules for this. Over time, you do develop a better feel for when a story is complete.
However, I can give you one guideline. If your urge to go back and revise is leading to writing paralysis, then you need to get it under control. In other words, if the quest for perfection has become so demanding that you start agonising over every single word or sentence to the extent that you can’t actually get anything written, then, yes, you probably need to take a step back.
If you’ve revised a single paragraph fifteen times and still can’t get it right, then take a step back. Either it’s actually fine, and you’re worrying over nothing, or you’ve hit a mental block. In either case, stepping back will help. What looks terrible when you’re tired, cranky, and sleepy can look much better when you’re in a more rational state of mind. Likewise, time away from a problem can often help you come up with the solution.
This leads me to the final way that overthinking can get in the way of good writing: ruminating on past mistakes and potential problems.
We all make mistakes. But writing is such a personal endeavour that it can genuinely hurt to have those mistakes pointed out. I doubt there’s a writer alive who hasn’t been on the receiving end of at least one incredibly rude, negative, and spiteful review. I’ve received a few such reviews in my time, and I can remember going through a range of emotions.
At first, there’s disbelief at the idea that someone could hate something I’d written so much. Of course, there’s also anger. Even if someone keeps their criticism directed solely at your writing and not at you, it can still feel like a personal attack. There can also be sadness and fear. The sadness often comes if it turns out that their criticism is correct. You can feel stupid. You’ll ask yourself over and over again: how could I make that mistake? How about the fear? The fear derives from the thought of making the same mistakes again, of receiving another similarly harsh review, of proving – through your continued failure – that they were right about you.
Now, obviously, not every writer will go through this range of emotions. Indeed, I haven’t felt like that for a long, long time. Part of it is developing a thicker skin and more confidence – a novice writer is much more likely to be crushed by this sort of attack than someone who has experienced it before and has years of writing experience under their belt. This is why, although I make a point of being civil, polite, and respectful in all my reviews, I am especially gentle toward writers that I know are just starting out. Learning to write well is hard enough without people trying to tear you down every step of the way.
However, we also need to realise something very simple: we do not get to decide how readers feel about what we’ve written. We may think we’ve written a wonderful story and many readers may agree. But some readers may not like the story. They may even hate it with every fibre of their being. But that’s okay. They are the reader – they are the one who gets to decide how they feel about a story. Understanding and accepting this fact will make your life a lot easier. Not everyone will like what you write, and that’s okay.
But perhaps the hardest-hitting reviews are those filled with sincere, honest critiques that correctly identify a litany of mistakes and ways that your writing could be improved. It hurts to know that you’re wrong or that you’ve made a mistake. But such reviews should be treasured not feared. How can we improve if we don’t know what we’re doing wrong? Treasure constructive criticism. It takes a great deal of effort for a reader to leave constructive criticism, so don’t be upset when you receive some. Be glad. The reader cared enough to take the time and effort to offer a useful critique. It might hurt for a little while to know you’ve made a lot of mistakes and that your writing is still far from perfect, but acknowledging those mistakes and improving those weaknesses will only make you better in the long run.
I’ve received reviews for stories I’ve written that provide pages of accurate, insightful criticism. Not all of those reviews are written in a friendly manner, but I’m still happy whenever I get a review like that because I know it will help me to improve. Criticism isn’t something to be afraid of – consider it a challenge and then rise to meet it.
How about another analogy? It’s often said that a good quarterback needs to have amnesia. Of course, nobody actually wants a quarterback to have amnesia – how could they memorise the playbook and run the offence? What the saying means it that a quarterback has to be able to overcome mistakes. They can’t afford to get bogged down in mistakes they’ve made in the past. They have to learn from those mistakes and then move on. Ruminating, or dwelling, on those mistakes will only ruin their performance.
A writer must be the same way. Acknowledge your mistakes – acknowledge the criticism – and learn from it. Then move on. Don’t let a negative review or past mistakes crush you. With writing, there will always be a next time. Do better next time. Getting a negative review or making a big mistake can feel like a loss, but there’s no better way to erase the feeling of a loss than snagging a win. Keep writing – the wins will come.
Writing well is a very challenging task from a mental perspective. It demands a great deal of thinking. But it needs to be the right kind of thinking. Nobody in the world is perfect, but it helps to practice. And don’t shy away from criticism. Instead, use it to improve.
If you’re interested in some of my other thoughts on writing, you can find those here.
If you’re interested in my original fiction, you can find that here.