Practice may not make perfect, but it certainly helps.
Occasionally, when I run the spelling and basic grammar check at the end of creating a new blog post, the WordPress application will pop up a little box that tells me, “No writing errors were found.”
As Irene Cara would say, “What a feeling!”
I realize, of course, such a pronouncement by an automated spell check system is tenuous, at best, and can give the writer a false security. The computer’s check is imprecise, but it still feels good to receive that little pat on the back.
Not uh gud speeler
Friends and family who have known me for a long time know that, as a student, I was horrible at spelling. I still am, at times. I add an ‘E’ that doesn’t belong or double a consonant that shouldn’t be doubled or I choose the wrong middle vowel. There are a number of elementary, everyday words — calendar, for example — which I constantly misspell or have to stop — actually stop — and concentrate to get them right. When I write fiction, my rough drafts are often still riddled with spelling mistakes, because if I’m really in “the flow” I refuse to allow myself to pause and fix them, even though my brain is underlining the words, just like the computer spell check does.
So, when I get through an entire blog post with no blatant spelling errors flagged by the spell checker, it is cause for minor celebration. (Of course, by deliberately misspelling words in that section heading, I will not get to see the little congratulatory box, this time around…)
We Learn by Doing
I bring my slippery grasp on spelling conventions up because it reminds me of a bit of advice I give fledgling writers: You will get better.
When I return a critique to a writing student, and we discuss the work, I often hear something similar to this comment: “I knew something was wrong, but I wasn’t sure what. Since I couldn’t really identify WHAT was wrong, I didn’t know how to fix it. Now that I see all of the things that could be improved, I’m thinking writing isn’t for me. There’s more work to do now than when I had a blank piece of paper! How will I ever get these pieces to all fit together? Will it always be like this?” This sort of soliloquy is delivered with the nervous energy of the Legion-infested swine about to fling themselves into the sea, and it takes some work to talk the new writer from the edge.
I try to focus on two things, at this point:
- This reaction is not uncommon. Most writers have had that initial, eye-opening experience of seeing just how inadequate early attempts at writing really are. If writing well were easy, everyone would be doing it. We wouldn’t be buying each other’s books, we’d just write our own. But writing — good writing — isn’t easy. Writing a novel isn’t something a brain surgeon decides to do on Monday and he has a completed manuscript, without flaws, on Thursday, around lunchtime. (Okay, maybe there are some people like that, but they are few and far between.) I’ve been writing pretty seriously for almost twenty years (with a few attempts to “stop it!” thrown in for good measure) and I still have that reaction with some pieces. My instincts have been sharpened, though, to the point of knowing what is missing before I allow my beta-readers to see it. Often, I’m just waiting to see if they noticed it to.
- But that brings me back around to the point here: It gets easier. You will get better. Doing this work now will free you to do better work down the road.
When we write a story — or, Heaven help us, a novel! — we are attempting to balance the storytelling elements of plot, character, setting, dialogue, theme, and so forth. Very few writers strike that balance on the first try. A strongly plotted piece may have stock characters who speak unnaturally and have no sense of place. A fully drawn character may be dull and lifeless, even though we know her shoe-size and that she spends hours (and pages) contemplating the different shapes and textures and hole configurations of the buttons on her walk-in closet filled with vintage dresses.
A new writer may look at a critique and understand the things I’ve suggested to improve the current piece, but they fret: Will I have to do this sort of radical surgery every time? Will I always require some teacher or other writer to look at my work and point out these painfully obvious (in hindsight) mistakes?
No. Writing is, when practiced regularly and intentionally, a cumulative craft. Writers learn by doing, and re-doing. Improvements come like multiple layers of varnish applied to new wood. Much of that learning and improvement happens on a sub-conscious level. After a while, the dialogue sounds more natural in the first draft, the repetitions and verbal tics are eliminated before they find their way onto the page, the overly complex and convoluted sentence structure is corrected before it wrecks havoc on an otherwise engaging paragraph.
Before they know it, the practicing writer finds a page, or even a whole chapter, where the fictional elements are in balance. The pages won’t be perfect, still, but they will be good. That’s when the real fun of revision can begin. Rather than radical reconstruction, the writer can focus on the more subtle and powerful elements of writing, like word choice, rhythm, and cadence.
Just as I have, with practice, overcome many of my deficiencies with spelling, other lackluster skills of storytelling can be overcome by writing, writing again, and writing some more. Throw in some useful feedback, and before long, you’ll be well on your way to a writing life that is more fulfilling and productive.