Hey, Your Writing Sucks

Let me explain.

When I first decided to pursue writing seriously (as in put my all into something that might not give me any return) all I wanted was someone to tell me that I was making the right decision. I didn’t know if I was good enough at writing to make it my career choice.

My entire way of thinking was wrong, but I’ll get back to that.

What I actually needed was someone to tell me my writing sucked. Because it did, and hey sometimes if I’m in a hurry it still does. (I’ve had to delete a few blog posts due to my hastiness.)

Pretending someone is better at something than they are is detrimental to their growth, especially while learning a craft. My biggest pet peeve in workshops are when people are so nice that the person whose work is getting critique thinks that their work was great…when it needed a lot of work. I don’t think being rude is the answer, but I think being kind while being honest is.

Which doesn’t happen a lot to young writers. Which might be surprising, but this is my own experience, it could have been different for you. Throughout my college workshops everyone was too scared to point out the flaws in a work, and when they did it was done so nicely that it was more of a ‘maybe you could change this, but you’re fine if you don’t.”

Once, a professor stopped me from commenting on the grammar of a short story. The entire story was atrocious, but I was trying to nicely point out that the grammar was so bad it was hard to read the story. (And to be honest grammar isn’t on the top of my list to criticize.) I overheard the student later boasting about how much everyone in class loved her story. Because we weren’t honest, she saw no need to fix her story.

I kind of wish someone had told me, “hey, your writing sucks.” Not to be cruel, but to push me. I don’t believe writers are born wordsmiths and it’s just natural to them, I believe it effort and hard work. When I was younger my writing sucked (I see that and wholly accept it now) but because no one pushed me to be better it took a lot longer for me to grow and become a better writer.

You suck at writing until you don’t. And I personally believe it’s a long road, but if you accept the fact that you haven’t written your best work, and you truly love writing, then it’ll push you because you’ll want to get better.

Before, when I wanted someone to reassure me that I was a good writer and making the right choice, I was setting myself up for disappointment. It isn’t that we should want reassurance of our skill, because skill is learned. What we need to be sure of is our love for the craft itself. If you aren’t willing to put a lot of time and energy into writing and strengthening your skill you won’t get a better result.

Now, writing as a hobby can make you a better writer, I’m only saying it will take longer. That’s fine, but if you call yourself a writer and you’re pushing toward publication, you need to continuously push yourself to get better. Don’t look for reassurance (it usually comes from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.)

It comes down to what most people will tell you- you yourself have to be your own motivator as a writer. And yes, that is one of the hardest parts of writing.

Don’t believe that you’re a great writer, believe that you have the willingness to be a great writer.

Books That Changed My Philosophy On Reading & Writing

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  • Middlemarch by George Eliot
    It was a long read, but worth the time I spent reading through it. What I loved most about it was the absolute brilliant character building and the revelation of character information. Virginia Woolf is quoted to say it’s ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’. And though there’s much debate on what she meant, I believe it’s all in the characters. They are displayed with virtues and vices and then we see them played out. We pity Fred, who just can’t get it together, because we see his virtue in when he fails. I like to think it’s a lot closer to how human relationships work. It’s also in the way we see characters making the “right” choice and realizing the right choice isn’t always the best or the happiest. 

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  • Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
    This book changed my philosophy on the craft of writing, which I talked a bit about in a recent post (here.) To sum it up: writing is something you have to work hard on and most importantly, the sentences you make must be paid attention to.
  • Without End: New and Selected Poems & A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewski
    I’m cheating and putting these two together because I read them at the same time (and they have the same author.) I recommend reading them together as I did. The essays inspired me to reach for the beauty of the world. To teach myself to appreciate what is ultimately better. We have opinions, but we must remember they are just opinions. My professor use to use the example of music: classical music is better than pop, regardless of your opinion, not because it’s older, but because of what it’s composed of. Music has multiple parts and pop tends to lean heavily on rhythm, whereas classical music uses more of what music is as a whole (rhythm, harmony, melody, etc., because I’m not that knowledgeable on music!) There is elevated literature. Persuasion by Jane Austen is ultimately better than Fifty Shades of Grey (this should be obvious.) He has an essay titled after the book that pushes the reader to appreciate and recognize when something is better, even if you don’t personally enjoy it. This brings me to the poems. I use to be so impatient when it came to poetry that I often didn’t want to read them, but as I read the essays (at the time I was reading Coleridge as well, so I was also being convinced that poetry was the most elevated form of language) I realized I wanted to appreciate poetry. It took a long time and a lot of rereading, but I have come to love Zagajewski’s poetry and consider him a favorite.989313
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
    With this short story I was simply amazed at Conrad’s ability to write about the Congo so beautifully. Most of all, his dialogue that felt more like a look into the human soul. My favorite quote of dialogue, (QOTD), explores the thought of loneliness in a starkly real way. By reading this story I learned that dialogue doesn’t have to be simple, or even a real conversation. It can be an exploration of an idea while telling a story.94799
  • Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides
    Nonfiction at its absolute best. It was as if my grandfather was telling me his account of the war and not leaving one detail out, nor forgetting to tell me what happened to any comrade he mentioned. The entire story was treated with care and love toward the people he wrote about. I loved reading nonfiction before, but I had never come across one so…brought to life. I find that historical nonfiction can be tedious at times and even monotone, but Ghost Soldiers pushed through that and made every detail count. He didn’t toss in the boring stuff just because it had to be in the book, he let it intertwine with the story and it worked.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Tender is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (because I thought Fitzgerald was overrated before reading this novel.)

The Giver by Lois Lowry (because it was the first book that brought me to love reading)

Writing Exercises are Awful (but They Work)

I hated doing writing exercises in class. I was never good at rushing out good metaphors and first drafts.

“Who wants to read theirs?” No thanks. Can I edit and get back to you?

But there’s a difference in writing exercises. The most common kind is the kind that you do in writing classes. “Write a few paragraphs exploring a certain metaphor,” or “Write a few paragraphs while intently focusing on description,” – these suck. You’re mostly writing down the first thing to come to mind…and if I’ve learned anything in writing it’s the first idea is very rarely the best or even remotely good.

I’ve found some writing exercises to be helpful, but these are narrowed in on one thing. Like, a sentence.

Write a sentence. Now, rewrite that sentence using different verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc. Flip it. Shorten it.

This is a exercise that actually helps mold the writing mind (and if you’re like me, makes the editing experience a bit more fun.)

If you want to practice description, why write a whole page? Write a sentence or two and then rewrite them until you see you’re own progress.

And progress is easier to see in small increments. It’s also less frustrating because it’s easier to look at one sentence than a whole page.


 

This is more my opinion then anything and what I’ve found works best for me. Maybe the first choice does work for you, but if it doesn’t try to narrow in on one thing, one sentence and build from there.

 

Perfecting Language on Paper

Writing isn’t just telling a story. It isn’t just creating a character, a plot, a resolution. It’s about the pursuit of perfect language.

The best lesson I ever learned was that to be a writer you must first love language. Not what you piece together and say is beautiful, but rather I’ll quote Samuel Coleridge on his definition of poetry, “the perfect words in the prefect order.”

This should be the pursuit of every writer. And though the quote is defining poetry, I believe it still should be our goal in fiction or even nonfiction.

My philosophy on writing has changed a lot over the years, from believing that my writing was for myself and you just didn’t get my point to pursuing language and the beauty thereof not for myself but for the relationship between the art, the artist, and the audience.

Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg is hands down the best best book on writing I’ve come across. And I love so much of his philosophy on writing that I wish I could quote the whole book.

Here are a few quotes that I hope will inspire you to pick up the book yourself.

“These assumptions and prohibitions and obligations are the imprint of your education and the culture you live in. Distrust them.”

“But long sentences often tend to collapse or break down or become opaque or trip over their awkwardness…Strong, lengthy sentences are really just strong, short sentence joined together in various ways.”

“Most of the sentences you make will need to be killed.”

“Do you remember feeling, when you were writing a paper for school, that your vocabulary was steadily shrinking?…That’s a symptom of boredom…you were repeatedly asked to persuade or demonstrate or argue, to reiterate or prove or recite or exemplify, to go through the motions of writing. You were almost never asked to notice or observe, witness or testify.”

“Paying attention to the decisions embedded in each sentence.”

“Volunteer sentences occur because you’re not considering the actual sentences you’re making. You’re looking past it toward your meaning somewhere down the road.”